December 2010

Where Kids Get Their Empty Calories

A new study found that nearly 40% of the energy consumed by kids and teens comes in the form of “empty” calories. Half of those empty calories come from the solid fats and added sugars in just 6 sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza and whole milk.

Today, nearly 1 in 3 children nationwide is overweight or obese. These children have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma. Both greater energy consumption (counted in calories) and less physical activity are factors that contribute to the nation’s growing weight problems.

NIH scientists examined extensive data on children’s diets to learn more about where the extra calories are coming from. Overall, the top 5 sources of energy were grain desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps and granola bars), pizza, soda, yeast breads and chicken dishes.

Experts recommend that kids limit their intake of empty calories to between 8% and 20% of their total calories. But the researchers found that nearly 40% of the children’s total energy came from empty calories. Sugar-sweetened beverages, a major source of empty calories, contributed a whopping 10% of total energy.

“The epidemic of obesity among children and adolescents is now regarded as one of the most important public health problems in the United States,” says study co-author Dr. Jill Reedy of NIH’s National Cancer Institute. The findings suggest that sugar-sweetened drinks should be a major target of efforts to improve our children’s health.