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Where Do American Children and Teens Get Most of Their Calories?

A new study shows that American children and teens get about two-thirds of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.
Where Do American Children and Teens Get Most of Their Calor...
American children and teens eat junk food, pizza

Nutrition experts express the importance of eating plenty of unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. A new study shows, however, that American children and teens get two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods (JAMA, Aug. 10, 2021). That proportion has increased substantially over the last 20 years.

What Are American Children and Teens Eating?

The data analyzed come from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of almost 34,000 American children and teens between 1999 and 2018. Most ultra-processed foods have less fiber and more sugar and salt than their unprocessed counterparts.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

How can you tell if a food is ultra-processed? Check the ingredient list. Simple foods like an apple or a carrot, for example, are minimally processed. If the box lists only ingredients you’ve got handy in your own kitchen, or even better, those your grandmother would have used, it is not ultra-processed.

When you spot terms like hydrolyzed proteins, high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated vegetable oil, it’s ultra-processed food. Examples include crunchy packaged snacks, candy, crackers or cookies. Even familiar ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods count as ultra-processed. Consider sweetened breakfast cereal, French fries and fast-food burgers. These accounted for the greatest increase in calories for American children and teens.

Drop in Soda Pop:

One bright spot: calories from sweet soda pop and sweetened juice dropped by about half. The researchers note that increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods makes it easy for youngsters to get too many calories. This could well contribute to childhood obesity.

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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. .
  • Wang L et al, " Trends in consumption of ultraprocessed foods among US youths aged 2-19 years, 1999-2018." JAMA, Aug. 10, 2021. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2021.10238
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