Healthy Eating Index Shows Most Children & Adolescents have a Diet that is Poor or Needs Improvement

A new indicator of child well-being shows that most children and adolescents have a diet that is poor or needs improvement and that as children get older the quality of their diet declines. In 1996, 76 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 88 percent of children ages 6 to 12, and 94 percent of children ages 13 to 18 had a diet that was poor or needed improvement. One out of five children ages 13 to 18 had a poor diet.

This indicator of diet quality is assessed by the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, consists of 10 components, each representing different aspects of a healthful diet. Components 1 to 5 measure the degree to which a person's diet conforms to the Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations for the five major food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk products, and meat/meat alternates. Components 6 and 7 measure fat and saturated fat consumption. Components 8 and 9 measure cholesterol intake and sodium intake. And component 10 measures the degree of variety in a person's diet.

The decline in children's diet as they get older is linked to declines in their fruit and milk component scores of the HEI. The average fruit score falls from 7.0 (out of a maximum score of 10.0), for children ages 2 to 3, to 3.1 for females and 2.8 for males ages 15 to 18. Only 11 to 12 percent of these older children meet the dietary recommendation for fruit. The milk score declines after age 10. Females ages 15 to 18 have a particularly low milk score--4.2. Only 12 percent of these girls meet the dietary recommendation for milk servings.

Whereas children in poor families may have access to various forms of nutrition assistance programs, they are still more likely than children in nonpoor families to have a diet rated as poor or needs improvement. For children ages 2 to 5, 19 percent of those in poor households had a good diet, compared with 28 percent of those in nonpoor households.

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