The study, published in this month's issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, compared data from the US Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines with data from the same body's 1998 "Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals". The researchers analyzed food consumption patterns previously taken from 7,000 children between the ages of 2 and 3, as well as 4 and 8, to deduce "food group adherence scores".
The researchers' conclusion - that small consumption shifts within children's food categories could make a healthy difference in their overall diet - highlights that behavior is still a significant stumbling block in delivering healthy food and ingredients to customers.
While children eat more as they grow older, they do not eat more of a good thing, the University of Alabama team wrote in its comparison of the children from age two to three, and four to eight.
"For these two age groups of children, although the number of servings for the food groups significantly increased, the adherence scores significantly decreased with increasing age."
The tendency carries through to the high school years when adolescents are more likely to abandon healthier eating habits as they become more independent and have more freedom to buy snack foods.
In tracking the adherence scores for food subgroups, certain groups surfaced as especially affecting the dietary quality of both younger and older children. As such the team recommends substituting dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables for starchy vegetables, and whole grains for refined ones in order to significantly enhance diets for both age groups.
The purpose of the study was to test a new measure of adherence to dietary recommendations, as well as to use it to assess children's diets. The researchers defined adherence as the degree to which a person's intake meets a standard. "This set of scores provides information on over-consumption and under-consumption of food groups compared to the USDA Food Guide recommendations."
Researchers and dieticians could use food group adherence scores to assess the extent to which eating habits of various segments of the population are in line with dietary recommendations, wrote the researchers, thereby making more effectively targeted research into specific health issues possible.
Dieticians can also track these types of scores for an individual and, in this case, possibly a child's vegetable consumption.