Kids Get Their Empty Calories From All Over

Fast food restaurants are not the only place where children eat empty calories

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) To prevent childhood obesity, it is important to know the kinds of unhealthy foods kids may be eating. Just as important to know, though, may be where kids are getting these unhealthy foods from.

A recent study found that children were getting a similar percentage of empty calories (calories from added sugar and solid fat) from schools, retail stores and fast food restaurants.

The researchers also found that sugar-sweetened drinks, pizza and grain desserts were the top sources of empty calories in these places, and noted that these foods should be targeted in prevention efforts.

"Make sure your child eats nutritious foods."

This study was led by Barry Popkin, PhD, of the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Dr. Popkin and team looked at children’s empty calorie consumption in retail food stores, schools and fast food restaurants, and identified which food groups were the main contributors of empty calories in each type of place.

Empty calories are calories that come from added sugar and solid fat. These types of calories don’t provide any of the essential nutrients that the body needs to function. Solid fats include saturated fats and trans fats, while added sugars are sweeteners that have been added to food during manufacturing, food preparation or before eating.

Data was analyzed from 3,077 children between the ages of 2 to 18 years who participated in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies and the USDA MyPyramid Equivalents Database were used to determine the calorie content, the added sugar and solid fat content and the nutrient composition for each food.

The researchers focused on three types of places where foods with empty calories were purchased: stores (e.g., supermarkets, grocery stores and convenience stores), schools and fast food restaurants.

The researchers found that children consumed a similar percentage of empty calories in all three places. Children ate 33 percent of empty calories from stores, 32 percent from schools and 35 percent from fast food restaurants.

Stores were found to provide the majority of empty calories with a total of 436 calories (241 calories from solid fat and 195 calories from added sugar).

The percentage of calories from added sugar was highest for food bought from stores at 15 percent, compared with 10 percent for food in schools and 10 percent for fast food.

The percentage of calories from solid fat was highest for fast food at 24 percent, followed by school foods at 22 percent and store foods at 18 percent.

The food and beverage products that were the top sources of added sugar and solid fat for each place were as follows:

  • sugar-sweetened beverages, grain desserts and high fat milk in stores
  • high fat milk, grain desserts and pizza in schools
  • sugar-sweetened beverages, dairy desserts, french fries and pizza in fast food restaurants

As the authors of this study noted, foods like high-fat flavored milk and pizza that were found to be the top sources of empty calories in these places should be targeted when developing new dietary standards.

"I would advise a patient's parent to recognize that any milk with more fat than skim or 1% milk has 'empty calories' and does not contribute to the child's health, will only cause the child to become overweight," said Garry Sigman, MD, Director of the Pediatric Weight Management and Adolescent Medicine Programs at Loyola University Health System.

"Also, most restaurants that families go to and that kids go to on their own with friends serve 1) too large portion sizes for good health and 2) highly palatable (tasty) foods that are made that way by added fats and sugars, both sources of empty calories. Most low to moderate cost restaurants serve such food because they are afraid their businesses will fail if they do not," Dr. Sigman told dailyRx News.

The authors concluded that their findings support previous suggestions that children's nutrition needs to be addressed not just at fast food restaurants but in other places as well.

This study was published on November 5 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The study was funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The study authors reported no competing interests.

Review Date: 
November 6, 2013
Last Updated:
November 7, 2013