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Are Young People Eating Better Than They Used to?

A study found that kids between two and 19 years old are eating better than they were twenty years ago, but their diets leave room for improvement.

A healthful diet is a critical foundation of good health. That’s why public health experts have long been concerned about the diets of American young people. Are they eating better as the 21st century rolls on?

Are American Kids Eating Better?

A cross-sectional study of more than 30,000 youngsters between 2 and 19 years old has examined trends in diet quality (JAMA, March 24/31, 2020). It doesn’t address the quality of diets while people are stuck at home with minimal shopping, but it does have some hopeful news from the time before the pandemic. The investigators used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (known as NHANES) between 1999 and 2016. They evaluated the diets utilizing the Healthy Eating Index and the American Heart Association diet score to determine how well the kids were eating.

Where the diet scores were higher, it meant the youth were eating better, with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, shellfish, nuts and legumes. Just as important, they were consuming less sugar, salt, processed meat and soda. 

How Have Diets Changed for Youth?

These scores showed modest improvement over the study period, so overall youth are eating better than they used to. The proportion of children consuming poor diets dropped significantly, from more than three-fourths to just over half. That still leaves a lot of young people whose diets are not very good.

The average consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped significantly, from 2 to one serving daily. Consumption of whole grains also increased, from less than half a serving daily to almost one serving, on average. These are positive trends, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Learn More:

If you are interested in young people eating better, you may be interested in our interview with Dr. Nimali Fernando, better known as Dr. Yum. This pediatrician describes how she taught children to cook and enjoy healthful foods in Show 1110: Terrific Tips to Help Kids Love Healthy Food.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Liu J et al, "Trends in diet quality among youth in the United States, 1999-2016." JAMA, March 24/31, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0878
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