Over a fourth of the calories kids and teenagers consume come from empty calorie foods like sodas, pizza and ice cream. That’s a problem. Kids' nutrition can include these sorts of foods occasionally, but not to such a high degree.

Empty calorie foods are those that contain mostly solid fats and added sugars and provide little or no nutritional value. When eaten on a regular basis, they lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. They also don't promote optimal growth and development for kids and teens.

Don't stock your pantry and fridge with junk foods. That way they won't seem like everyday food choices.

Using numbers collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2007-08 and 2015-16), researchers at the National Cancer Institute looked at diet trends for children and teens ages two to 18. They found that over 25 percent of the calories consumed by kids and teens came from empty calorie foods, and that percentage increased as kids got older.

Younger children tended to get their empty calories from fruit drinks and flavored milks, while older kids and teens were more likely to get theirs from pizza and sweet baked goods, like cookies and brownies. Among older children and teen, soft drinks were also a common source of empty calories.

On a positive note, the percentage of calories from empty calorie foods went down slightly over the the study period with no decrease in total calorie intake, meaning that kids and teens are eating a little better.

The researchers suggest some ways policymakers can help kids and teens eat healthier:

  • Introduce interventions that target high calorie and empty calorie foods.
  • Create programs to educate kids and teens about hidden sources of empty calories foods.
  • Increase marketing to promote healthy foods and restrict marketing of less healthy foods.
  • Reformulate foods to reduce the amount of empty calories and unhealthy ingredients.
  • Initiate zoning and other policies to change the food environment so access to less healthy foods is limited and that fresh foods are more readily available.
  • You can be your own policymaker. Help your children and teens limit the amount of empty calories they consume by teaching them from a young age that empty calorie foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, chips, ice cream and sweet baked foods should be eaten only occasionally. Don't stock your pantry and fridge with these foods so they don’t seem like everyday food choices.

    In fact, your example may be the best teacher of all.

    The study was presented as part of the American Society of Nutrition’s 2020 Nutrition meeting which was held as NUTRITION 2020 LIVE ONLINE due to the COVID-19 pandemic.