For the first time since its inaugural publication in 1980, the newest edition of the USDA Dietary Guidelines will include nutritional recommendations for birth to 24 months, according to the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released in mid-July.
As I perused the 835-page document which will set the national dietary guidelines for the next five years, I noted the sections regarding children and fish intake with interest.
The good news? The committee has maintained its previously published recommendations that children over age two and adults get 20 percent of their protein from fish, or two servings of fish per week. Re-affirming that guidance should cheer parents everywhere.
Details to come, but first, a memory
About a decade ago, my oldest daughter became an unwitting celebrity in her preschool class due to her rather unconventional fish consumption habits.
“Hey, Bella’s mama! She ate a dead fish today!”
“Hi Bella’s mom - did you know that she ate dead fish for lunch?”
“Excuse me, Miss Bella’s Mommy - can you please stop putting those little fishies in her lunchbox?”
I can still remember hearing those bewildered voices of her classmates in the pickup line at the end of the day. No, her little preschool friends were not referring to the orange goldfish crackers frequently served to children, but rather an actual fish. It was a humble sardine, slick with the oils I knew contained critical nutrients for her brain and body, tidily nestled in its own compartment between handfuls of berries and celery sticks.
When she had started school, I worried that the healthy habits I had worked so hard to cultivate at home would quickly be outdone by newfound access to the more glamorous and novel snacks at preschool; Lunchables, “fruit snacks” (i.e., sugar and food coloring), and the ubiquitous goldfish crackers. Thankfully, my little Bella’s contrarian personality was an asset, and the preschool peer pressure had the opposite of the intended effect. Much to her classmates’ chagrin and her teachers’ wonderment, her daily sardine habit continued, and I found other matters to worry about, as mothers will.
A Short History of Kids, Fish, and Federal Guidelines
As it turns out, Bella’s daily sardine was federally approved. In 2010, the USDA had made waves by publishing:
“…a new quantitative recommendation for seafood intake. An intake of 8 or more ounces per week (less for young children), about 20% of total recommended intake of protein foods of a variety of seafood is recommended” (USDA, 2010).”
Pregnant and breastfeeding women were also advised that “moderate evidence indicates that intake of omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA, from at least 8 ounces of seafood per week for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding is associated with improved infant health outcomes, such as visual and cognitive development” (USDA, 2010).
This was a departure from the 2005 edition, which had merely made some passing references to fish as sources of protein and a broad category of polyunsaturated fats, without making specific recommendations as to whether or not these should be included in one’s diet.
Fish and seafood did not appear in the section entitled “foods to increase,” where they may be found today.
Forty Years of Guidelines
It was back in 1980 that the USDA first published a guideline of dietary recommendations to “promote health, help prevent diet-related chronic diseases, and meet nutrient needs” (USDA-FNS, 2018).
Based on broad public health goals and existing data in the scientific literature, these Dietary Guidelines have become the “cornerstone for Federal nutrition programs” (USDA-FNS, 2018).
In short, they have become the main source of dietary information for health professionals nationwide.
In 1990, Congress enacted the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, mandating that the USDA and Health and Human Services revise and republish the guidelines every 5 years (101 Cong., 1990).
But these nutritional recommendations don’t seem to make much of a dent in firmly established eating habits and corporate behemoths that dictate most American’s food choices. For example, despite the advice which has stood in place for a decade now that adults eat at least eight ounces or two servings of seafood weekly, many do not even reach one serving or two ounces in a week (DGAC, 2020).
Yet the potential benefit of increasing fish consumption on public health could be huge. It’s been estimated that the increased omega-3 consumption alone could prevent between 72,000 - 96,000 avoidable deaths (Danaei, 2011).
The Vital Early Years
With the USDA committee only now turning its attention toward the crucial time frame of birth - 24 months, one wonders what potential benefits our children have been deprived of, and what further negative consequences associated with nutritional deficiencies could be avoided (Fuentes-Albero 2019).
The window of time from 34 weeks of gestation to 2 years of age sees some of the most significant brain development and peak synapse development, and nutrition plays an absolutely critical role at that time (Nyaradi, 2013).
My memory of Bella’s incredulous classmates made me wonder. How can we normalize eating actual fish, rather than empty-calorie “goldfish,” in the diets of young children?
Will parents start thinking of sardines as kids’ food? Or will children forever be too embarrassed to bring their little sardine snacks to school, as my little Bella eventually was by the time she reached second grade?
My Sardine Stalwart
Change takes time, and little tastebuds will always have their preferences. Even that adorably recalcitrant three-year-old encountered a phase where the pressure proved too much, and for a time, we enjoyed our sardines in the privacy of our own home, away from prying eyes. I was happy she still enjoyed them with me, but secretly I hoped that she would come back to her original stubbornness, despite her newfound social graces.
And she did. The chubby cheeks, so often smeared with blueberry stains and paint streaks at the end of that preschool day are now slender and impossibly lovely; the stubby stompy three-year-old legs are now long and lanky, and attached to a nearly unrecognizable young woman who calls me Mama. I know it’s her: the feistiness is still there. Not only does she still delight in a can of sardines (or oysters, or fish eggs, or any other seafood treat, for that matter) she will also give an adorably accurate lecture about their nutritional benefits simultaneously.
As we face a new era of health challenges, I am grateful for her stubbornness. I’m grateful that she did not give up on sardines.
I have to remain hopeful not only that these recommendations will eventually increasingly be implemented, but that the standards will continue to be elevated even further so that eventually, more little preschoolers will delight in a humble tin of sardines for lunch, just as my little girl did.
Committee on a Framework for Assessing the Health, Environmental, and Social Effects of the Food System; Food and Nutrition Board; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Nesheim MC, Oria M, Yih PT, editors. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Jun 17. ANNEX 1, DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FISH CONSUMPTION. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305180/
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