Written by: Wallace Merriman

Where Are Our Kids’ Calories Coming From?
Posted on:Apr 13, 2011

You can probably guess the correct answer to that one. But, really? Yes. According to a recent study, nearly 40% of total calories consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds were in the form of empty calories, or sources of calories with virtually NO nutritional value. 40%!1 Given the clear association between poor diet and body weight (overweight/obesity, often caused in part by poor diet) and increased risk of countless chronic diseases and conditions (type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, poor self-esteem/quality of life, etc.) it’s hard to believe that this is the case. How can we be feeding our children so much “junk”?

While we don’t usually call foods “junk” and tell people that “all foods can fit, in moderation” I do tend to believe that some foods and nutrients should be looked at as “junk.” When someone asks for my professional (RD) opinion what the worst food to eat/drink is I usually tell them “soda or pure sugar candy.” Yes, soda contributes to daily fluid intake, but I think the foods/beverages that are made of pure, refined sugar do more harm than good. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 agree that some foods should be severely limited – foods with SoFAS (solid fats and added sugars). 

In the study mentioned above1, researchers set out to identify top food/beverage sources of calories, solid fats, and added sugar among American children. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a large national study with subjects of varying race/ethnicities and incomes, they were able to determine which foods we (as parents and health professionals) need to help our kids eat less of. And this is an important message. Overall, kids don’t need to be eating less. They need to be eating/drinking less of certain foods/beverages. Here are some specifics:
Solid Fats – Major Sources Among 2- to 18-year-olds

  1. Pizza
  2. Grain desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, granola bars)
  3. Whole milk
  4. Regular cheese
  5. Fatty meats
  6. Fried potatoes (among non-Hispanic blacks and persons with poverty income ratio between 131% and 185%)
  7. Mexican dishes (among Mexican Americans)
  8. Reduced-fat milk (among non-Hispanic whites and persons with poverty income ratio >185%)
  9. Pasta (among persons with poverty income ration >185%)

Added Sugars – Major Sources Among 2- to 18-year-olds

  1. Soda
  2. Fruit drinks
  3. Dairy desserts
  4. Candy
  5. Cold cereal (among 2- to 8-year-old children, non-Hispanic whites, and low-income groups)

What’s most disturbing is that when they looked at total calorie intake and which foods contribute most to total daily calories, the foods above topped the list – grain desserts, pizza, and soda were numbers one, two, and three. Yes, these foods are higher in calories than healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, and thus, will contribute a significant amount to total calories, but if almost half (40%) of our kids’ calories are coming from foods with SoFAS something’s got to change!

As a mom of two young children I know that it’s easier said then done. Busy lifestyles, social influences, and an environment that is not healthy-food friendly definitely make providing healthy foods for our families tough. Everyone needs to work together to change the tide. Parents need to make time for healthy food shopping and cooking at home; schools and workplaces need to make healthy foods available and appealing; food manufacturers need to reformulate their products to remove solid fats and added sugars; communities need to make fresh food markets more available and affordable; this list could go on and on.