US Children Consume Fewer Calories, Too Much Saturated Fat

Marlene Busko

February 21, 2013

Surprising new numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) show that, contrary to common assumptions, US children are not actually eating more calories. The make-up of the food they are eating, however, has shifted in recent years.

According to the report, between 1999 – 2000 and 2009 – 2010, the average daily calorie intake actually dropped among American children and teens. At the same time, their diets shifted to contain slightly more protein and slightly fewer carbohydrates, while total fat remained the same. The percentage of calories from saturated fat continued to exceed the level recommended for healthy eating.

These findings, based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), were published online February 21 in a data brief.

The report authors, R. Bethene Ervin, PhD, and Cynthia L. Ogden, PhD, from the National Center for Health Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Hyattsville, Maryland, also identified gender, racial, and ethnic disparities in the children's eating patterns.

Between 1999 – 2000 and 2009 – 2010, the percentage of American boys who were obese grew, but this was not true for girls, Ervin and Ogden write. More recently, from 2007 – 2008 to 2009 – 2010, obesity rates did not increase among boys or girls.

To identify changes in the consumption of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and total calories in American children and teens, the researchers looked at NHANES data from 1999 to 2010 for boys and girls aged 2 to 19 years old who were white, black, or Mexican American.

Over this 12-year period, the average daily energy intake decreased from 2258 calories to 2100 calories among boys and from 1831 calories to 1755 calories among girls.

Protein intake increased from 13.5% to 14.7% of calories for boys and from 13.4% to 14.3% of calories for girls. This increase occurred in all racial, ethnic, and gender subgroups, except among black girls, where protein intake remained constant, at around 13.5%.

In contrast, the average percentage of calories from carbohydrates decreased from 55.0% to 54.3% for boys and from 55.8% to 54.5% for girls. Carbohydrate intake decreased among white boys, white girls, and black boys, but not among black girls or Mexican American boys or girls.

Overall, during the study, the children and teens derived about one third of their calories from fat. However, consumption of saturated fat fell from 12% to 11% of total calories for Mexican American boys and declined from 11.8% to 10.7% of total calories for Mexican American girls.

The saturated-fat numbers are particularly worrisome, the authors caution.

"The percentage of calories from protein, carbohydrate, and fat are within the ranges recommended for these macronutrients for this age group, but the percentage of calories from saturated fat was above the 10% recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010," they write. "In 2009 – 2010, on average, US children and adolescents consumed between 11% and 12% of kilocalories from saturated fat."

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

NCHS data brief. Published online February 21, 2013. Article