If there is any wonder why one out of every three children in the U.S. is overweight, a new study provides harrowing insight into why that might be the case. Researchers with the National Cancer Institute recently analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on what children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years are eating. The results are not pretty, much like those from our previous report on childhood snacking: 40 percent of the calories kids eat come from junk food.
Foods that accounted for the most calories were grain desserts, pizza, soda, yeast breads, and chicken dishes, in that order. When considering the foods supplying the most calories, we might notice that they are also high in fat and sugar. The researchers determined just how much came from solid fats and added sugars.
Solid fats are those solid at room temperature – mostly the unhealthy saturated and trans-fats that clog the arteries from foods like like butter, shortening, lard, tropical oils, and margarine. Fats that are liquid at room temperature (and not included in the tally) are the healthier fats, like nuts, olives, vegetable oils, and avocado. The average intake from solid fat was 433 calories per day, mostly from pizza and grain desserts. Other top sources of fat include fried potatoes, beef dishes, whole milk, and cheese.
Added sugars are those added in during processing, but not natural sugar already present in things like fruit and milk. These came in a little lower than solid fats, but not by much. Kids and teens ate an average of 365 calories per day of added sugar, mostly from soda, fruit drinks, and grain desserts such as cookies, cakes, and donuts.
Why is it a big deal? Solid fats and added sugars are considered “empty calories.” That is, they provide a lot of calories with few, if any, essential nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals. The typical American child eats 798 calories, or about 40% of their total calories per day, from junk. Of course we’re all “allowed” some empty calories, but experts recommend that kids in this age group should only have up to 8 to 20 percent of their calories as so-called “discretionary” ones, depending on their age. That’s anywhere from one-fifth to one half of the 40percent they’re currently consuming! Sugar-sweetened beverages contributed 22% (already over the limit) all on their own. These trends could begin at an even younger age, as we previously reported with baby food.
It should be noted that some of these fats and sugars come from kids’ versions of potentially nutrient-rich foods, like yogurt, milk, and granola bars. However, kids versions tend to be loaded with added sugar, thus adding calories and contributing to the empty calorie intake. In fact, there’s a longstanding debate about whether it’s better to give kids a food rich in both nutrients and sugar that they’ll drink (e.g. chocolate milk) or the healthier version that they be more likely to refuse.
Experts recommend to watch out for other empty-calorie foods that have a healthy halo, such as pretzels, Goldfish crackers, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored snacks. These could all be substituted with healthier versions, such as whole-grain crackers (Graham crackers count!) and pretzels, water, unsweetened coconut water, low-fat milk, unsweetened applesauce, or whole fruit.
If you don’t want your kids to be a statistic, instead of falling into the convenience food trap of pizza and chicken nuggets, opt for something healthier. Salads, skinless grilled chicken, whole fruits, and whole grains like oatmeal and whole-wheat pasta can give us all more of the vitamins and minerals we need. And instead of that sugar-sweetened beverage, reach for water, soymilk, or low- or nonfat milk.