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New Report on Children's Dietary Habits Disappoints Educators

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A report out last week that found only a fraction of children in the United States meet all the federal guidelines for a healthy diet has disappointed some education leaders who have strived over the past decade to improve students' eating habits.

Only 1 percent of 2- to 19-year-olds ate a balanced diet, as recommended by the federal government, during the period reviewed, the study published in the Sept. 4 issue of the journal Pediatrics reports.

Federal food and nutrition guidelines suggest that people eat a range of foods from five food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, and meats.

Yet, researchers found that 40 percent of the children's diets came from fat and added sugars, and 16 percent of the 3,300 children whose eating patterns were examined did not meet any of the dietary guidelines.

Conversely, the study found that 30 percent of the children met the recommendations for fruit, grain, meat, and dairy products, while 36 percent consumed the suggested amount of vegetables.

Hispanic and African-American children were less likely than white children to meet all the nutritional guidelines, according to the study.

The authors of the study, conducted by the federal National Institutes of Health, said that the findings point to the need to get children to eat less fatty food and more fresh vegetables, fruit, and grains.

Unhealthy eating patterns and high consumption of fatty foods can contribute to a range of illnesses later in life, past research has shown.

'It's Not Panic Time'

But the findings may not be as dire as they appear.

The subjects of the study were polled by telephone between 1989 and 1991. Adults monitored and reported the eating patterns of the children in the survey who were younger than 12.

Since then, educators have placed more emphasis on healthy eating practices--in the classroom as well as in the school lunch program.

In addition, although federal nutrition guidelines have been in place since the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "food pyramid" was not introduced until 1992--after the survey was conducted.

Kathryn A. Munoz, one of the study's authors, said that the graphic depiction may have helped parents and children make better choices.

"We would hope that currently they are consuming a little better foods," she said last week.

Even by research standards, the time between the data gathering and publication of the study was lengthy. In large part, the authors attributed the lag time to the unavailability of the research methodology they used, which became functional just last year.

In the past decade, many schools have attempted to educate students about the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise, said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators. Influencing change in eating habits that are often ingrained at home is challenging, he said.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," Mr. Marx said.

But one dietary group said last week that the government's study may be somewhat alarmist as it takes a broad look at young people's eating habits.

"It's not panic time in the old corral," said Edith Howard Hogan, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, based in Washington.

"This may be a call to eat better foods," Ms. Hogan said, but "people aren't doing a miserable job with feeding their children."

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Web Resources
  • Read an abstract of "Food Intakes of U.S. Children and Adolescents Compared With Recommendations" from Pediatrics, the on-line journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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