Junk Food Nearly Half of Kids' Calorie Intake

Junk food makes up nearly half of kids' caloric intake.

ByABC News
September 30, 2010, 2:32 PM

Oct. 1, 2010 -- If there were ever a reason to cut back on kids' consumption of cake, cookies, pizza and soda, nutrition experts say a new study highlights just how unhealthy young people's diets really are.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that nearly 40 percent of calories consumed by children ages 2 to 18 were empty calories, the unhealthiest kind of calories.

"Consumption of empty calories far exceeded the corresponding discretionary calorie allowance for all sex–age groups," wrote the researchers, led by nutritionist Jill Reedy.

"This number is staggering and depressing," said Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology, epidemiology and public health at Yale University.

While the findings don't surprise many nutrition experts, they say the reasons kids consume so many empty calories are complex. The push for healthier foods over the past few years has helped a little, but they say there are still many obstacles to changing eating habits for the better -- including a lack of physical activity, parental and peer influences, and marketing by the food industry.

"Empty-calorie foods are manufactured by the food industry to be maximally palatable," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn.

"I don't see a solution unless we have serious limits on advertising of foods that damage the health and reduce the longevity of today's children," said Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

But the picture is complex, said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. Many kids -- and their parents -- simply do not know what they ought to be eating.

"Nutrition education needs to start in prenatal classes and move through the entire education system," said Diekman. "As I work with college students it amazes me, the number who don't know the nutritional value of many foods or even how much of each food group they need."