Nutrient-Poor Food in Kids’ Diets: Where Does It Lurk?

Although fast-food is often blamed for contributing tons of empty calories to kids’ diets, it’s just one source. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that while 34.6% of calories consumed by kids from fast-food restaurants (including pizza home delivery, restaurant food, and food from vending machines and sports/recreation facilities) did, in fact, come from solid fats and added sugars (collectively referred to as SoFAS), foods consumed from stores (including supermarkets, grocery stores, and convenience stores) and schools (including school cafeterias and child-care centers) were similar to fast foods in their SoFAS content, with SoFAS contributing 33.2% of calories from stores and 31.2% of calories from schools. These findings came from an analysis of national survey data of dietary intake collected between 1994 and 2010 from more than 22,000 children aged 2 to 18.

In another study published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the same researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill analyzed the dietary intake of more than 3,000 children aged 2 to 18 in 2009-2010. Similar to the findings from the 1994-2010 analysis, this study revealed that empty calories account for 35% of kids’ calories from fast-food restaurants, 33% of calories from stores, and 32% of calories from schools. Interestingly, store-bought foods contributed significantly more daily empty calories (an estimated 436 calories) from sugar and solid fat to kids’ diets than either school foods or fast foods. The researchers explained that the highest calorie load derived from store-bought foods was due to the fact that almost all kids reportedly consumed them daily, whereas only 32% or 24% reported they consumed fast food or school food, respectively, on any given day.

When they looked at the biggest contributors of empty calories in kids diets based on location, the researchers found the top sources derived from stores were sugar-sweetened beverages, grain desserts, and high-fat milk. High-fat milk, grain desserts, and pizza were the top empty calorie contributors at schools, and sugar-sweetened beverages, dairy desserts, French fries, and pizza were the top sources derived from fast-food restaurants.

According to the researchers, “Efforts to reduce children’s consumption of empty calories must be made across multiple locations—not just at fast-food restaurants, but also at stores and schools.” They also single out high-fat flavored milk, grain desserts, and pizza as foods—top contributors of empty calorie intake by kids when they’re at school—that should be targeted as the new federal nutrition standards for school meals are implemented.

To help kids eat better, it’s important for parents to empower them to make more healthful choices—especially because they increasingly make food choices on their own when they’re away from home. Teaching kids how to read food labels and to identify—and choose—appropriate food portions to meet, but not exceed, their needs can also help. It’s also important to teach kids which foods and beverages can be considered everyday foods or dietary staples, and which ones should be considered as occasional or once-in-a-while foods. Eating as a family at home more often, modeling healthy eating habits and food choices, and offering a variety of options prepared in an appealing way—and getting kids involved in grocery shopping, meal planning and food preparation or cooking often—can also help. Being exposed to nutritious foods and learning to prefer such foods, especially from an early age, can help them want to make better and more informed decisions down the road— whether they’re at school, at the deli, at a fast-food restaurant, or at a stadium to watch their favorite basketball team in action. Setting them up for success won’t guarantee they’ll always make the most nutritious choice, but it will point them in a more healthful direction.

How do you help your kids cut some empty calories from their diets?

Find healthy finger food recipes your tot will actually eat with our easy guide. Plus, learn how to make baby food right at home!

Image of happy lovely baby in shopping trolley via shutterstock.

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