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Children Eating Less, Weighing the Same

Posted on March 5, 2013

Photo taken by Bruce Teten, used with Creative Commons license.

For the first time in over forty years, new data suggests that children are eating less. This news is encouraging for parents, health professionals, and policy makers who have been working hard to spread positive nutrition messages. Unfortunately, these decreases in caloric consumption – mostly accounted for by fewer carbohydrates in children’s diets – are not enough to reverse worrisome obesity trends, according to NYU Professor Marion Nestle.

These findings were released as part a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) analysis of Americans’ consumption patterns. The NHANES, a governmental survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measures the medical and nutritional health of Americans. The extensive data sets give experts and policy makers an idea of disease risk and prevalence among subsets of the United States population. The most recent report was part of the 2009-2010 data set.

Overall caloric and carbohydrate consumption decreased for children and teens ages 2-19 between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010, while protein intake increased and total fat ingestion stayed the same. Most notably in the face of current obesity concerns, boys’ average caloric intake decreased 158 kcals from 2,258 to 2,100 calories per day, while girls’ dropped from 1,831 to 1,755 calories per day. This correlates to about a five percent decrease in calories and one percent decrease in carbohydrates for both groups throughout the 12-year period.

Distinct age and racial/ethnic groups, however, did not always follow these trends. For instance, non-Hispanic Black girls continued eating similar levels of carbohydrates and protein between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010, and saturated fat intake declined in Mexican-American children ages 2-19 despite a lack of trend in other populations. Experts speculate that increased public awareness and successful health promotion campaigns may be catalyzing the overall decrease in children’s daily caloric intake. For example, the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, in combination with other public health campaigns such as New York City’s ban on large sugary drinks and national mandates requiring chain restaurants to display calorie counts on menus, likely contributed this encouraging trend.

Schubert Center faculty associate Elaine Borawski, PhD works in the field of health promotion and health behavior interventions, including obesity and diet modification. Faculty associates Leona Cuttler, MD and Ellen S. Rome, MD, MPH also work with childhood obesity.