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Children’s Nutrition on the Rise, but Still Far From Ideal

It’s the week after Thanksgiving, and people across the nation are starting to think about the upcoming holidays. After enjoying a calorie-loaded feast Nov. 24, and anticipating more food opportunities as the end of the year approaches, I know I can’t be the only one starting to play with New Years’ resolutions regarding healthier food choices. Parents, I’m sure, are also thinking about the diets of their children.

Well, there is some good news: nutrition among U.S. children is on the rise. However, their diets are still not ideal, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study of 38,000 children utilized the standard, 100-point Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010) and found that the average diet of American children rose to 50.9 in 2012 from the 42.5 reported in 1992.

We already know that Millennials are eating their vegetables, but just how are the diets of children improving? According to the study, children are beginning to eat healthier foods like whole fruit and are more likely to avoid the “empty calories” provided by sugary drinks. In fact, the study noted that nearly a third of the total improvement was due to this avoidance of sugar-laden beverages. According to lead study author Xiao Gu:

“I am encouraged by the gains … Although we showed several components still need to be improved … our paper provides evidence that we are on the correct track.”

A number of components that constitute the overall HEI-2010 scores showcased significant improvements. Whole grains, dairy, whole fruit, total fruit, seafood, plant proteins, greens, beans, fatty acids, total protein foods and refined grains also exhibited positive growth during the time period. However, sodium consumption was an outlier, getting worse over the years.

Despite the gains, the improvements only raised the bar from already-poor levels. According to Gu:

“The average score for whole grains is only 2, which is far below its maximum of 10, even though we observed a significant increasing trend … For whole fruit the optimal is 5 but the average we observed is 2.1. I think the increasing trend is encouraging but the current dietary quality level is disappointing.”

The study authors, who surveyed thousands of different participating children and caregivers every two weeks, noted that every demographic subgroup of children shared in the improvement. However, the pace varied and disparities remained. For instance, the score among non-Hispanic black children improved to 48.4 in 2012 from 39.6 in 1999, but non-Hispanic white children rose to 50.2 from 42.1. The study authors said that although the gap narrowed, a clear disparity persisted. In closing, Gu noted that policy could help improve children’s diets more dramatically:

“We should continue improving our policies and programs along with doing more research because that has really made Americans healthier.”