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Childhood Obesity Driven by Empty Calories

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Child obesity

Childhood obesity has become a focus of researchers who now say empty calories in the diet are a major source of the current epidemic. Scientists say 40 percent of calories consumed by 2 to 18 year olds are from solid fat and from added sugars, found in an analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Jill Reedy, PhD, MPH, RD, and Susan M. Krebs-Smith, PhD, MPH, RD, both of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD. says the childhood obesity epidemic “is now widely regarded as one of the most important public health problems in the US”. In order to curb the problem children must increase activity levels and limit empty calories.

The study found that half of empty calories come from soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk. Among 2 to 18 year olds the top sources of calories were from grain desserts, pizza, and soda, with ten percent of calories coming from sugar sweetened beverages.

Empty Calories Linked to Childhood Obesity Varies by Age and Ethnicity

In the analysis the researchers found variances in the type of empty calories consumed by children, related to age and ethnicity. For 2 to 3 year olds, milk, fruit juice, reduced-fat milk, and pasta and pasta dishes were identified as the major sources of energy – 4-8 year olds are getting their calories from pasta and reduced-fat milk.

Mexican Americans consumed more energy from milk than from sugar-sweetened beverages; fruit drinks and pasta and pasta dishes are contributing to obesity for 2- to 18-year-old non-Hispanic blacks, and a combination of soda and fruit drink consumption rather than milk of any type was found to be a source of empty calories among non-Hispanic blacks and whites.

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In a commentary to the article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Rae-Ellen W. Kavey, MD, MPH, University of Rochester Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Cardiology, Rochester, NY, talks about sugar as a contributor to childhood obesity.

"High added sugar consumption which occurs most commonly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with a constellation of cardiovascular risk factors, both independently, and through the development of obesity. Multiple studies have shown that presence of these risk factors in childhood is associated with accelerated atherosclerosis and early cardiovascular disease.

Randomized trials of nutritionist-guided interventions show us that diet change can be accomplished and is associated with important cardiovascular benefits. This combined body of evidence suggests that reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should be considered a critical dietary approach to reducing cardiovascular risk in childhood."

Another finding implicated school vending machines as a contributor to childhood obesity. Rather than buying school lunches, children are more likely to buy less healthy snacks and beverages even when healthier options are available.

The study highlights the need for dietary changes that can reduce the number of empty calories consumed by children that also varies with age and ethnicity.

According to background information from the study, 23 million children and adolescents in the US overweight or obese. Dr. Krebs-Smith says, “the flow of empty calories into the food supply must be reduced”. A combination of dietary changes and physical activity are needed to fight childhood obesity and reduce the risks of chronic disease in adulthood.

Journal of the American Dietetic Association