BOSTON (March 24, 2020, 11:00 a.m. EDT)—Despite consuming fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and more whole grains, most American children and adolescents still eat poorly – and sociodemographic disparities persist, according to an 18-year national study between 1999 and 2016 of U.S. children’s dietary trends.
Led by Junxiu Liu and Dariush Mozaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the study is published today in JAMA. The research team analyzed the diets of more than 31,000 U.S. youth, 2-19 years old, based on national data across nine cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2016. They assessed each child’s diet as poor, intermediate or ideal, based on three validated dietary scores, all of which are designed to measure adherence to accepted nutritional guidelines.
The study finds that a majority — 56 percent — of American children and adolescents had diets of poor nutritional quality in 2016. This was despite improvements over the 18-year study period including:
The proportion of children and adolescents with poor diets declined, 77 percent to 56 percent.
The proportion of children and adolescents with intermediate diets increased, 23 percent to 44 percent.
At the end of the study period, adolescents (12-19 years old) had the worst diet of three age categories, with 67 percent found to have a poor diet, compared with 53 percent of children aged 6-11 and 40 percent of children aged 5 and under.
Key dietary disparities persisted, especially based on parental education and household food security status, and worsened by household income. For example, at the end of the study period, 65 percent of children from households in the lowest income category had a poor diet, compared with 47 percent of children in the highest income category.
“This is a classic ‘glass half full or half empty’ story,” said Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and senior author of the study. “Kids’ diets are definitely improving, and that’s very positive. On the other hand, most still have poor diets, and this is especially a problem for older youth and for kids whose households have less education, income, or food security.”