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Experts identify the top sources of empty calories for children and teens

A new study from the American Society for Nutrition has found that children and teens consume excessive amounts of added sugars and solid fats, and more than 25 percent of their diet is made up of empty calories.

The researchers identified the most common sources of empty calories for young people, including soft drinks, fruit drinks, cookies, pizza, and ice cream.

“Our findings suggest a need for continued research into what children and adolescents are eating,” said Dr. Edwina Wambogo, the study’s primary investigator. “Examining the whole landscape of available foods and beverages for children and adolescents can help inform new ways to promote healthier eating.”

The research was focused on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which analyzed diet trends for children between the ages of 2 and 18 from 2007 through 2016.

“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 Dr. Wambogo. “This trend was mostly driven by declines in added sugars intake, including those from soft drinks and fruit drinks.”

Despite the positive results, the researchers also found that more than 25 percent of the caloric intake for all ages of children came from empty calories, and the percentage of empty calories increased with age. 

The most popular sources of empty calories remained consistent across the study period. However, as children got older, the main sources of empty calories shifted from beverages such as fruit drinks to foods such as pizza and cookies. Overall, older children and teens consumed more calories from soft drinks rather than fruits drinks or flavored milk.

The researchers have proposed several strategies that may help children and teens consume healthier foods, such as increased marketing to promote healthier foods, limited marketing for unhealthy foods, changing the food environment to make healthy foods more accessible, and product changes like reducing added sugars in beverages.

The researchers plan to further examine how the top sources of calories consumed by young people vary according to family income. They also want to investigate how added sugars in beverages may impact the total amount of calories consumed by children and teens.

Dr. Wambogo presented the research as part of Nutrition 2020 Live Online, a virtual conference hosted by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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