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Sources of Empty Calories among Children in the US

Nov 28, 2013
 
Average empty calorie intake of US children greatly exceeds recommendations….

Calories from solid fat and added sugar are collectively referred to as empty calories. Solid fats are largely composed of saturated and trans-fatty acids, which are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Added sugars are defined as caloric sweeteners added to foods during processing, preparation, or at the table, but excluding natural sugars found in fruit and milk. Consumption of these empty calories exceeds the recommendations but little is known on where US children obtain these empty calories. In this study, researchers compared children’s empty calorie consumption from retail food stores, schools, and fast-food restaurants; to identify food groups that were top contributors of empty calories from each location; and to determine the location providing the majority of calories for these key food groups.

This analysis studied data on 3,077 US children aged 2 to 18 years from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a cross-sectional survey. The calorie content of each food was determined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) using the Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies. Added sugar and solid fat content was obtained from the USDA MyPyramid Equivalents Database.

In the results, the relative contributions of empty calories to total intake from stores (33%), schools (32%), and fast-food restaurants (35%) were not significantly different. Average empty calorie intake from each location greatly surpassed recommendations. Calories from added sugar were higher for store foods (15%) compared with school food (10%) or fast food (10%). The relative contribution from solid fat was largest for fast food (24%), but significantly higher for school foods (22%) compared with store foods (18%). Store-bought foods contributed significantly more empty calories (436 kcal/day), added sugar (195 kcal/day), and solid fat (241 kcal/day) per capita than either school foods or fast foods. These per capita estimates reflect the substantially larger percentage of children who consumed store-bought foods on a single given day (99%) compared with the percentage consuming fast food (32%) or school food (24%).

Based on these results, the authors suggest that efforts to reduce children’s consumption of empty calories must be made across multiple locations not just at fast-food restaurants, but also at stores and schools.

Practice Pearls:

  • The relative contributions of empty calories to total intake from stores (33%), schools (32%), and fast-food restaurants (35%) were not significantly different.
  • Average empty calorie intake from each location greatly surpassed recommendations.
  • Store-bought foods contributed significantly more empty calories (436 kcal/day), added sugar (195 kcal/day), and solid fat (241 kcal/day) per capita than either school foods or fast foods.

Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, November 2013