A recent study of children and teens found that more than 25 percent of the calories they consume are considered “empty,” which are calories from added sugars and solid fats. The top sources of empty calories were soft drinks, fruit drinks, cookies, brownies, pizza and ice cream.
Using data spanning from 2007 to 2016, this research adds information on both sugar and fat intake trends among children and adolescents. That, in turn, can help inform new ways to promote healthier eating, said Edwina Wambogo, PhD, RD, lead author of the study and a recent postdoctoral Cancer Research Training Award Fellow with the National Cancer Institute.
“The more we understand children’s eating habits, the more of an impact we can make on this population in regards to overall nutrition, diet and lifestyle, as these components play a crucial role in [adult] cancer risk and prevention,” said Sheena P. Swanner, MS, RDN, AICR’s Director of Nutrition Programs.
Limiting consumption of sugary drinks and foods high in sugars and fats are among AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations. Foods that are packed with sugars and fats have relatively high calories in each bite – called the calorie density of a food – that can eventually lead to weight gain. And children who have overweight are more likely to have overweight as adults.
Among adults, AICR research shows that overweight and obesity increases the risk of a dozen cancers. Aside from not smoking, staying a healthy weight is one of the most important steps adults can take to lower their cancer risk.
From Fruit Drinks to Soft Drinks
In the study, researchers used data from the 2007-2008 through 2015-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to analyze diet trends for children and teenagers ages 2-18.
Among all age groups, empty calories declined, regardless of energy intake. Despite this positive trend, all age groups consumed more than 25 percent of their caloric intake from empty calories and the percentage of empty calories increased with age.
Top food sources for these empty calories remained almost the same from 2007-2008 to 2015-2016. Among all ages, soft drinks held the top spot for empty calories throughout the years.
As age increased, the sources shifted from beverages such as fruit drinks and flavored milks to foods such as pizza, cookies and other sweet bakery products. For beverages, older children and teens tended to consume more calories from soft drinks rather than fruits drinks and flavored milks.
Strategies to Shift
Foods categorized as empty calories are calories that primarily contain fats and added sugars. Familiar examples of empty calorie foods are cookies, sugary sodas and donuts – sweet foods and beverages that contain relatively few nutrients and plenty of calories. Other foods that make the empty-calorie list include those high in whole milk, cream and fats, such as cheese and pizza.
Not all foods categorized as empty calories are a bad thing, experts note. For example, cheese is a nutrient dense food and milk is a good source of calcium. With some of these foods, the goal is to limit consumption.
Government dietary guidelines recommend that the day’s total calories consist of less than 10 percent from added sugars and less than 10 percent from saturated fats. This will make room for all the needed nutrients within a healthy calorie limit.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggest several strategies that might be used to help children and teens consume healthier foods. These strategies include increased marketing that promotes healthier foods to children and teens along with limited marketing of less healthy foods, and nutrition education that addresses hidden sources of empty calories from frequently consumed foods. Changing the food environment to ensure availability of healthy foods and product reformulations are other suggested strategies.
Today, close to one in five kids and teens have obesity.
“I encourage parents to start reading food labels and ingredients and understand what they mean,” says Swanner. Sodium, calories, fiber and added sugars are all areas to look at on a food label. “As parents (and children) recognize and become more aware of foods that they are eating that may not be as healthy, they can start choosing healthier alternatives and transition to an overall healthier diet which in turn can help shift to a healthier food landscape.”
You can find tips on how to read a nutrition facts label by using our interactive guide.
To cut down on added sugars, read the strategies offered by the government Dietary Guidelines.