Nearly Half of Energy Consumed by Kids are “Empty” calories

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Where Kids Get Their Empty Calories

America’s children are in large part ignoring the layout of the food pyramid, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the energy consumed by 2 to 18 year olds comes in the form of “empty” calories, half of which come from just six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy and grain desserts, pizza and whole milk.

Drs. Jill Reedy and Susan Krebs-Smith of NIH’s National Cancer Institute led the study to examine the sources of total energy in an American child’s diet. After studying data from the diets of over 14,000 children between two and 18 years old, Reedy and Krebs-Smith have found that children’s diets contain more than twice the number of empty calories that they should.

Overall, the study found, the top five sources of energy for children were grain desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars), pizza, soda, yeast breads, and chicken dishes.

Such dietary habits may have an impact on America’s inflating childhood obesity rate. Over the past 30 years, the number of childhood obesity cases in the United States has tripled. Today, nearly one in three children is either overweight or obese, and as a result is more likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure. Mushrooming childhood obesity rates can also be tied to asthma and even cancer.

Experts recommend that children limit their intake of empty calories to between 8 percent and 20 percent of their total calories, whereas today’s kids are nearly 40 percent powered by these calories. Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda pop and some fruit drinks, contribute a “whopping 10 percent” of total energy in a child’s daily diet, the study said.

The study concludes that not only must American children eat right and exercise, but that it’s critical that the availability of empty calories in the food supply be reduced. “It’s unreasonable to expect people to able to change their eating behavior when so many forces in the environment conspire against making healthy choices,” Reedy said in an article about the study on the National Institutes of Health website.

The report is available in the October issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (registration required).