The study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, analyzed the diets of children aged two to 18 in order to identify their top calorie sources, as well as their primary sources of solid fats and added sugars.
They found that nearly 40 percent of children’s and adolescents’ energy came from ‘empty calories’ in the form of solid fats and added sugars – an average of 433 calories and 365 calories each day respectively – far more than the eight to 20 percent discretionary calorie allowance specified by the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Top sources of energy were sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda and fruit drinks, providing an average of 173 calories per day; grain desserts such as cookies, cakes, donuts and pies (138 calories); and pizza (136 calories). The researchers claim that children’s high consumption such foods means that reformulation cannot be sufficient to remove enough empty calories from the food supply to affect obesity rates.
“The epidemic of obesity among children and adolescents is now widely regarded as one of the most important public health problems in the US,” the study’s authors wrote. “Most experts agree that the solution will involve changes in both diet and physical activity, in order to affect energy balance. For diet, this means a reduction in energy from current consumption levels.”
The food industry has made strides in reformulating its products in recent years. Companies representing about half of all food and beverage sales in the United States have reformulated about 20,000 products to be lower in trans fat, saturated fat, calories, sugar or sodium from 2002 to 2009, according to a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association survey.
Reducing ‘empty calories’
But the researchers behind this latest study claim that there are simply too many empty calories in the food supply for reformulation efforts to be effective in themselves.
“The landscape of choices available to children and adolescents must change to provide fewer unhealthy foods and more healthy foods with less energy. Identifying top sources of energy and empty calories can provide targets for changes in the marketplace and food environment,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, product reformulation alone is not sufficient — the flow of empty calories into the food supply must be reduced.”
Although there is an overabundance of energy in the US food supply, the authors cite a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which showed that there are too few vegetables, whole grains, fruits and milk products in the food supply to meet dietary recommendations.
“Therefore, US children and adolescents do not always consume the types and amounts of food they need to support an active, healthy lifestyle,” they wrote.
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 32 percent of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese – almost triple the rate in the 1970s.
Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association
Vol. 110, No. 10, pp. 1477-1484
“Dietary Sources of Energy, Solid Fats, and Added Sugars among Children and Adolescents in the United States”
Authors: Jill Reedy and Susan M. Krebs-Smith