A new study of children and teens found that more than 25% of the calories they consume were considered empty - those from added sugars and solid fats. The top sources of these empty calories were soft drinks, fruit drinks, cookies and brownies, pizza, and ice cream.
"Our findings suggest a need for continued research into what children and adolescents are eating," said Edwina Wambogo, PhD, who was a recent postdoctoral Cancer Research Training Award Fellow with the National Cancer Institute. "Examining the whole landscape of available foods and beverages for children and adolescents can help inform new ways to promote healthier eating."
Wambogo, the primary investigator for the study, will present the research as part of NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE, a virtual conference hosted by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).
The researchers used data from the 2007-2008 through 2015-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to analyze diet trends for children and adolescents ages 2 to 18 years old.
"Over the time period studied, we observed a downward trend in the percent of calories coming from empty calories without any associated decrease in total calorie intake," said Wambogo. "This trend was mostly driven by declines in added sugars intake, including those from soft drinks and fruit drinks."
Despite this positive trend, the analysis revealed that for all age groups studied more than 25% of their caloric intake came from empty calories, with the percentage of empty calories increasing with age. The top food sources for these calories remained almost the same from 2007-2008 to 2015-2016. However, with increasing age, the sources shifted from beverages such as fruit drinks and flavored milks to foods such as pizza and sweet bakery products. In terms of drinks, older children and teens also tended to consume more calories from soft drinks rather than fruits drinks, flavored milks and whole milk.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggest several strategies that might be used to help children and teens consume healthier foods:
Designing interventions that target top sources of energy and empty calories.
Nutrition education that addresses hidden sources of empty calories from frequently consumed foods.
Increased marketing that promotes healthier foods to children and teens and limited marketing of less healthy foods.
Product reformulation such as reducing added sugars in beverages.
Changing the food environment to ensure availability of healthy foods and limit access to less healthy foods.
The researchers are planning a follow-up study to examine how the top sources of energy and calories consumed by this age group vary by family income. They also want to study further how added solid fats and sugars in beverages may impact intake of calories among children and adolescents.
Sources of Energy, Empty Calories, Added Sugars, and Solid Fats Among Children and Adolescents 2-18 Years in the United States. Presented at NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE, The American Society for Nutrition’s new virtual meeting, June 1 – 4, 2020.
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