American Kids Need More Whole Grains, Veggies, Seafood, Report Says

girl with veggies
(Image credit: Ilona75 |

American children's diets fall considerably short of meeting national dietary recommendations, according to a new government report.

Researchers measured diet quality by giving children a score from zero to 100, with 100 representing a diet that fully met national dietary guidelines.

The average score was 50 for children ages 2 to 17, in 2007 and 2008 (the most recent period for which data was available). That score remained relatively unchanged from earlier years. (The average score in the 2005-2006 period was 47.)

The researchers also looked at how well children fared in meeting the guidelines for specific food groups. Children came close to meeting guidelines for diary and protein intake, with average scores in the 80s, but generally ate far too little whole grains, greens and beans, with average scores ranging from 14 to 18.

"The diet-quality scores of children and adolescents would be improved by increasing the intake of vegetables, especially dark greens and beans, replacing refined grains for whole grains, substituting seafood for some meat and poultry, and decreasing the intake of sodium (salt) and empty calories from solid fats and added sugars," the report said. [See 10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits].

Chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, may stem, in part, from childhood eating patterns, according to the report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In addition to examining diet, the report looked at a number of other measures of children's well-being. Here are some of the findings:

  • The number of children living in the United States fell slightly, from 73.9 million in 2011 to 73.3 million in 2012.
  • The percentage of children born preterm dropped from 12.8 percent in 2006 to 11.7 percent in 2011.
  • The rate of teen births, for girls ages 15 to 17, fell from 17 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2009 to 15 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2011.
  • The percentage of high school seniors reporting binge drinking rose, from 22 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2012.
  • The percentage of children ages 4 to 11 with detectable levels of cotinine in the blood, a measure of secondhand smoke, dropped from 53 percent in 2007-2008 to 42 percent in 2009-2010.
  • The percentage of children who visited a dentist in the past year rose from 85 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2011.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, about 18 percent of children ages 6 to 17 were obese, which was relatively unchanged from the period between 2007 and 2008.

The report also gave estimates about changing demographics. By 2050, about half of U.S. children will be Hispanic, Asian or of two or more races, the report said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.