We’re eating too much of the wrong things and too little of the right things. That statement is true of the population in general, but particularly true for our children. The top 10 sources of calorie intake for the U.S. population include such items as soft drinks, sweetened cereal, desserts and white breads, chips, ice cream and white potatoes.
Saturated fats comprise about 12 percent of our children’s diets as well as nearly double the recommended amounts of added sugars, which comprise another 20 percent of daily calorie intake.
In all age groups of children 2 to 18 years old, the majority is not meeting daily nutritional requirements. Foods that showed a decline in consumption include milk, vegetables and legumes, and nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, nuts and leafy greens.
Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers
Of the age groups studies, infants and toddlers had the best nutritional content in their diets, primarily due to formula/breast milk and the content of introductory foods like pureed vegetables. Preschoolers even showed an increase in servings for whole grains and some nutritious foods.
Even so, the FITS (Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study) showed that up to one-third of infants and toddlers aged 7-24 months did not consume a serving of vegetables or fruit. Fewer than 10 percent consumed leafy green vegetables, which accounts for a shortage of vitamin E in their diets. 46-62 percent did consume a fruit juice, many of which exceeded the 6oz per day serving size recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians. Diets of the children who drank more then the recommended amounts of fruit juice showed an inadequate intake of calcium due to the decrease in milk consumption.
As the children in this group aged, the quality of their diet declined. Consumption of foods such as white potatoes increased. French fries were the third most consumed vegetable at age 9-11 months, second most consumed vegetable at 12-14 months, and the most consumed vegetable at ages 15 months and up.
The consumption of desserts also increased from 10 percent of infants aged six months to 91 percent of those aged 19-24 months. 12 percent of these older toddlers consumed soft drinks. Typical toddler snacks accounted for some of this consumption. Snacks account for about 25 percent of toddlers’ calorie intake in a day. The most common snack items included milk, water, and crackers. However, snack items such as fruit drinks, candy, chips and cookies were also consumed frequently. Thus, often low nutrient items accounted for one-quarter of toddler diets in the study.
Less than half of children ages 6-11 consumed the recommended servings for any one age group. 80 percent did not meet the recommendations for vegetables and 75 percent did not meet the serving requirement for fruit. Among this same 6-11 age group, only 29 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys met the required servings of dairy products.
Adolescents and Up
By the time a child reaches adolescence, the state of their daily nutrition is at its worst. This is an especially disturbing trend because this age marks a growth period comparable to that of the first year of life. Adolescents tend to gain approximately 50 percent of their adult body mass, 40-45 percent of their skeletal mass, and 15 to 20 percent of their height during this period. Thus, at a critical growth period, nutrition intake is at its worst and declining.
Adolescent girls were at the highest risk for not meeting daily nutrition requirements, especially with regard to folate, vitamins A, E, C, B6 and calcium. Less than half of both girls and boys in this age group did not meet minimum intakes from each food group, comparable to the intakes of younger children, including 80 percent who did not meet serving requirements for the vegetable/legume food group. According to the New York Times article “VITAL SIGNS: NUTRITION; Adolescents Aren't Eating Their Vegetables,” adolescence is often accompanied by a notable drop off in fruit and vegetable consumption.
Only 12 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys in this age group consume the recommended daily allowance of dairy products. Inadequate calcium intake during this critical growth period can lead to inadequate bone mass and diseases later in life like osteoporosis.
The main culprit in the decrease of dietary calcium for this age group is sweetened beverages like fruit drinks and sodas. The past forty-year trend has shown a two-fold increase in fruit drink consumption and a three-fold increase in soda consumption.
Currently these beverages comprise 13 percent of adolescents’ daily calorie consumption and are the single leading source for added sugars in their diets. Adolescents consume nearly double the recommended daily limit of added sugars. Basically, as the children grew up, their consumption of milk decreased as their consumption of soda and sweetened beverages increased.