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They are barely walking, but already know what they like. More than a quarter of toddlers' total food intake comes from chips, sweetened drinks, biscuits and other nutritionally-poor "extras", Sydney researchers have found in the first Australian survey of what babies eat as they make the transition from milk to a solid food diet.

Nearly half of the 429 western Sydney children - with an average age of 19 months - were given cordial drinks daily, while more than half had hot chips every two or three days. Chocolate was eaten every other day by more than one-third of the toddlers, and two-thirds ate biscuits most days. One in five were getting 37 per cent of their calories from foods other than basic cereals, dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables.

Their early eating habits might set a pattern of preference for highly processed flavours and lead to excessive weight gain later in childhood. 

The babies' high consumption of fatty, starchy and sugary products directly reduced the amount of healthy food they ate, said the University of Sydney researcher Karen Webb, leaving them low on essential nutrients such as calcium and iron.  Their early eating habits might set a pattern of preference for highly processed flavours, she said, and lead to excessive weight gain later in childhood.

Dr Webb, a nutritionist and senior lecturer at the university's School of Public Health, said she was sympathetic to the challenges of feeding children. "Being a parent myself, I know how difficult it is to control food intake," she said. "Parents eat these foods. They have them around the house. These foods are regarded as treats and parents may be using them to modify behaviour. The terrible twos come early for some."

Her results highlighted a gap in official dietary recommendations, which only address children aged four years and older, Dr Webb said. Older children should get no more than 10 to 20 per cent of total energy intake from snacks and sweets, according to the Government advice - but this study, published in the Public Health Nutrition journal, showed children still in nappies were already exceeding the upper threshold.

Parents did not recognise how extras accumulated in their baby's diet, said Dr Webb, whose research team taught parents to meticulously weigh the food offered to their toddler and subtract the weight of leftovers.

As well, parents might relax their eating rules if they were concerned by their toddler's reduced low food intake and did not appreciate this pattern is normal in the second year of life.

The toddlers who ate the most non-essential foods were no fatter than those fed more healthily. But they consumed significantly fewer nutrients, and their calcium intake was below recommended levels. Dr Webb said it was unlikely the children would develop actual deficiencies.

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