We’ve heard it for years – the daily diets of America’s children are in dire straits. Now, there is concrete proof. In a study recently profiled on ABC News, researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Maryland have analyzed data that proves the assumption. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicated that more than 40% of the calories consumed by children ages 2-18 were empty calories – calories that contain little to no nutrition. Half of these calories came from just six foods:
- Cakes, donuts, cookies and other grains
- Sugary fruit drinks
- Dairy desserts
- Whole milk
When interviewed, the researchers indicated that the reasons for such high percentages of junk foods are largely unknown, but in many cases can be directly tied to the children’s home environment. Many parents are unaware of how they should be feeding their kids and look to manufacturers and stores to lead them in the right direction.
Another factor that contribute to poor nutrition in our kids was the typical teenager’s love of junk food. Teenagers, who have a limited income base, would rather spend their money on new clothing and electronics instead of quality foods. Junk food is cheap, tasty and filling so it is a frequent choice.
The news is not all bleak, however. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, an organization that represents 300 food, beverage and consumer product companies, said that between 2002 and 2009, food and beverage companies have introduced thousands of healthier alternatives. Now the difficulty seems to be to persuade the consumers to choose the healthier foods.
Update: I have been contacted by a registered dietitian with the National Dairy Council (NDC) who wanted to know if I would provide clarification about the nutritional properties of whole milk. I’ll be glad to do so. I am actually somewhat opposed to adding milk to the list, for many of the reasons that she indicated in her email to me. Milk and milk products – regardless of the fat content – contain much to improver children’s health. It is difficult for many children to obtain optimal levels of key nutrients in the U.S. diet that are important for good health including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and riboflavin. Higher dairy intake has also been associated with reduced levels of osteoporosis and diabetes. I would clarify my position in the article above to say that any choice of milk would be a better decision than sugary fruit drinks, juices or sodas, and that because of the vitamins whole milk contains, it is hardly an ’empty calorie’. I think that the distinction needs to be made that children over the age of two should be enjoying low or no fat milk products, in order to obtain the necessary nutrients without adding unnecessary fat to their diets.