American children are drinking fewer sugary beverages and eating more fruits, but the majority still had poor-quality diets, researchers reported Tuesday.
More than half of kids, 56%, were eating meals of low nutritional value that contained too much salt, too many processed foods and not enough vegetables, according to a 17-year analysis published in JAMA.
That puts them at "astonishing risks" for Type 2 diabetes and obesity, said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, study co-author and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
"Having more than half of our children eating poor diets is really unacceptable, both for their own health and the associated health care costs over their lifetimes," Mozaffarian told TODAY.
"There's very good evidence that diets established in childhood and adolescence persist through life… so how kids eat at home, at school and when they're out with friends really makes a big difference for the rest of their lives."
'Glass half full or half empty'
The findings are based on the food selections of more than 31,000 U.S. children and teens who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 until 2016. Kids 12 years old or older were asked to recall everything they ate during a 24-hour period. Parents helped provide the same information for younger children.
The authors then analyzed the nutritional quality of those choices using the American Heart Association's healthy diet score, which gives the highest grades to meals that contain plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and nuts, legumes and seeds; while cutting down on salt, sugar, saturated fat and processed meats.
By that standard, diets were classified as either poor, intermediate or ideal.
In a "glass half full or half empty" story, the proportion of children eating a poor-quality diet dropped significantly from almost 77% to 56% over the study period.
Kids consumed fewer sugary drinks — "one of the biggest successes," Mozaffarian said — while eating more whole grains, yogurt and fruits and vegetables.
"Yes, progress is being made," he noted. "Still, more than half of American children are eating poor diets."
By 2016, kids were eating:
About 1.8 daily servings of fruits and vegetables, or less than half the recommended four servings.
One daily serving of whole grains, or less than one-third the recommendation of three servings.
Meanwhile, salt intake "increased and greatly exceeded" the recommendation of no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, likely because kids increasingly eat more processed foods and food prepared away from home, the study noted.
Adolescents 12-19 years old made the worst food choices, with two-thirds found to have a poor diet, compared to about half of kids aged 6-11 and 40% of children 5 and under.
On average, kids were eating worse diets than adults, likely because older people grew up in a "less processed-food environment," Mozaffarian said. It could also be that as people age, they start eating healthier.
As many people stay home during the coronavirus outbreak, it's an excellent opportunity for families who can afford it to learn how to prepare healthy food together, Mozaffarian noted.
He advised parents to focus on buying fruits and vegetables, looking up simple recipes and making dishes that contain nuts, yogurt and other healthy foods.
"This is maybe the first time in generations, or first time ever, that the whole country is at home together with their families and children," he said.
"This is a really great opportunity for us to rediscover the social joys and the health benefits of healthy cooking."