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Study: Kids Are Eating Better, But There's Still a Lot of Room for Improvement

A new study looks at the state of American kids' diets, and unfortunately, it's not all what we want to hear.

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A new study reveals that while on the whole, American kids' diets are improving, this isn't true for all children. Unfortunately, researchers at Brown University say kids from lower-income families, and those from certain racial groups, are still less likely to eat healthy foods.

The study, which looked at the diets of 38,000 kids, ages 2 to 18, and is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, used the 100-point Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010) score as a means of assessment.

Over the study period of 1999 to 2012, the so-called HEI-2010 rose to 50.9 from 42.5, reflecting that, overall, kids are eating more fruits, whole grains, dairy, greens, and protein-packed foods, and are steering away from sugary drinks and other empty-calorie sources.

"I am encouraged by the gains," commented the study's lead author, Xiao Gu, a master's student in epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, "although we showed several components still need to be improved."

Specifically, sodium intake is getting worse for U.S. kids. And there is still room for improvement when it comes to how much whole fruit and grains kids are eating.

Drilling down, certain subgroups of kids didn't show as significant improvement as others. Not surprisingly, when household income went up, so did the degree of gain in the HEI-2010. Interestingly, according to the study, kids receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits lagged behind kids not receiving such benefits, but those benefiting from the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program pulled further ahead of kids not receiving that assistance. Gu notes this difference may be explained by how the programs are structured; in SNAP, consumers can buy almost any food, and could be purchasing unhealthy options. But with WIC, one has limited food choices that adhere to certain dietary guidelines.

The study also noted that the score among non-Hispanic black children improved to 48.4 in 2012, from 39.6. But consider that, over the same period, the score for non-Hispanic whites rose to 50.2 from 42.1.

Parents.com talked to Gu, and co-author Katherine Tucker, of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, to find out what the study's takeaway is for parents. "Parents should guide children on proper food selection as an addition to their nutrition education programs," Gu said. "Also, they can search for healthy recipes and prepare healthy and delicious food for children. For example, they could provide lemon water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages when children are thirsty, or provide yogurt or nuts as snacks."

Tucker added, "I would say to follow the dietary guidelines to increase intakes of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and dairy and to reduce foods high in salt, sugar, and refined grains." She also said, "Since 1999, there has been a clear trend toward better quality diets among children and adolescents. However, dietary quality scores remain relatively low overall and there is more work to be done."

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.