NIH Press Release
National Cancer Institute

Tuesday, September 2, 1997
5:00 PM Eastern Time

NCI Press Office
(301) 496-6641

U.S. Children Failing to Meet National Dietary Recommendations:
Extra Fat and Added Sugar are Main Culprits

American children are getting 40 percent of their calories from extra fat and added sugars and are routinely failing to meet national dietary recommendations, according to an analysis reported by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers.* Only 1 percent of children between 2 and 19 years old met all the Food Pyramid recommendations for grains, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy foods. Sixteen percent of children met none of the recommendations.

Those children who met the recommendations had the highest levels of fiber and lowest amount of added sugars in their diet, but their fat intakes were still not as low as recommended (30 percent or less of total calories should be from fat).

"Food habits learned during childhood are carried into adulthood," noted Susan Krebs- Smith, Ph.D., one of the NCI researchers who conducted the study. "And poor dietary habits have been shown to increase adults' risks for many diseases, including cancer. Teaching children to choose a well-balanced diet can be an important step toward their long-term health." Kathyrn A. Munoz, Ph.D., an NCI cancer prevention research fellow, and others in NCI's Applied Research Branch also worked on this project.

The Food Guide Pyramid, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992, recommends numbers of servings of grains, vegetables, fruits, and meats based on the energy (calorie) needs of the child. Dairy food recommendations are based on age only, to ensure adequate calcium intake. Recommended servings, depending on energy needs, are: grains, six to 11 servings; vegetables three to five servings; fruits, two to four servings; dairy products, two to three servings, and lean meat, five to seven ounces per day (see chart, Page 4 for breakdown by calories and what constitutes a serving). Extra fats and added sugars are to be used sparingly.

NCI researchers used information from three-day food intakes of 3,307 children ages 2 to 19 years as part of USDA surveys in 1989-1991. By breaking down foods into component parts (such as pizza into bread, cheese, and tomato sauce), they determined how many food servings were being fulfilled. Key findings of the report:

What can parents do? Krebs-Smith and her colleagues recommend starting with small substitutions: Change from whole milk to lower fat milk to reduce fat intake -- children over 2 years old do not need whole milk for adequate growth. Increase opportunities for children to eat fruits and vegetables -- have juices in the fridge instead of soda and keep raw vegetables and low-fat dips on hand. Choose pretzels instead of corn chips or potato chips for snacking. Suggest teens eat grilled chicken sandwiches instead of fried chicken nuggets or low-fat milk instead of a milkshake when they eat out.

NCI also has an Action Guide for Health Eating, with a variety of tips to help plan a well-balanced diet. This brochure is available through NCI's Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER).

Note: Dr. Munoz is now employed by Merck and Co., Inc., in Blue Bell, Pa.

* The study, titled "Food Intakes of U.S. Children and Adolescents Compared to Recommendations," was published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics. The authors are Kathryn A. Munoz, Susan M. Krebs-Smith, Rachel Ballard-Barbash, and Linda E. Cleveland.

Recommended number of servings from each food group for three levels of energy intake
(from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid)

Energy Level
Food Group 1600 Calories 2200 Calories 2800 Calories
Grain servings

1 slice of bread, 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal, ½ cup of cooked rice or pasta

6 9 11
Vegetable servings

½ cup of cooked vegetables (including potatoes), 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables, 6 ounces of vegetable juice

3 4 5
Fruit servings

½ cup of cooked or chopped fruit, 1/4 cup dried fruit, 6 ounces of juice, medium piece of fruit

2 3 4
Dairy servings*

1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 ½ ounces of natural cheese, 2 ounces of processed cheese

2-3 2-3 2-3
Meat in ounces 5 6 7

*dairy recommendation is not based on energy needs.

For children ages 2-3 who eat less than 1,600 calories a day, serving sizes are two-thirds the amounts listed above.

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