The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

U.S. Fruit and Veggie Intake in Children

U.S. Fruit and Veggie Intake in Children

Health and Wellness

March 29, 2009

French fries and fruit juice are the leading sources of vegetable and fruit intake in children and teens in the U.S., according to a recent Ohio State University study. Over a four year period, fries contributed more than 28% of all vegetable consumption in this population; nearly a quarter of fruit intakes came from juice.

Using data from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers found that a large portion of U.S. children and adolescents were well below the USDA recommended guidelines of five to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day based on a 1,200 to 3,200 calorie diet. Perhaps even more worrisome, says Dr. Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition and Extension Specialist at Ohio State University, is that the fruits and vegetables they are eating are mainly potatoes and juice.

“We promote high consumption of fruits and vegetables, but more importantly, we promote the highest variety of those items so we can diversify the diet,” says Melgar-Quinonez. “When we see that one specific food makes a large share of a whole food group then it is a concern because children won’t be getting the micronutrients and the fiber they need for a balanced diet.”

The study also looked to identify the factors that significantly relate to fruit and vegetable intake. Age categories consisted of preschool, young children and adolescents. Race and ethnicity categories consisted of Mexican American, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic African American. Other categories included sex, body mass index, income and food security status.

Although vegetable intake was higher in boys, overall vegetable intake did not differ greatly among other categories. In fact, no differences existed for veggie intake across income levels. Very few differences were reported for veggie intake in regard to weight status. Fruit intake, by comparison, was higher in younger children and Mexican Americans. In addition, when compared to normal weight children, overweight children were less likely to meet fruit recommendations.

Those most at risk for consuming larger amounts of energy-dense fruits and vegetables (like juice and fries) were boys, adolescents, those at risk for overweight or overweight, and those living in households below 350% of the poverty level. The lowest reported intake for total fruits and vegetables were in children and adolescents living in food insecure households. 

Another factor of significance was age, as the tendency to consume fewer fruits and vegetables increases dramatically as children move into adolescence. Teenagers were four times more likely to consume less fruit and nearly 2.5 times more likely to consume fewer vegetables. Melgar-Quinonez says that this finding is of huge concern because it shows that we are doing a good job with very young children but lacking some crucial messaging when it comes to reaching teenagers.

“We can speculate that younger children are in a more controlled environment and so their family members are making a bigger effort to influence good dietary behaviors. Teenagers, on the other hand, make many of their own choices when it comes to food, and they might not have the proper tools to help them make healthier decisions.” 

Melgar-Quinonez says it is important to hone in on teenage eating habits because teens represent the bridge to adulthood. By not targeting adolescents with attractive messages regarding healthy eating behaviors, he says, we are missing a chance to help teens avoid many chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, in the future.

Regardless of income level, race, gender or weight category, however, there is a common need among American children and teens for nutritional interventions designed to increase daily consumption of fruit and vegetables beyond the realm of French fries and juice.

Melgar-Quinonez adds, “Retailers can help develop strategies that help children of all ages make the best decisions when it comes to eating healthier.”