Public Release: 

American kids' poor food choices: Fewer than 15 percent eat recommended fruits and vegetables

Kids need help making simple substitutions to reduce risk of obesity and chronic disease

Porter Novelli

Fewer than 15 percent of the two million American elementary school-age children eat the recommended five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The dismal discovery from a new analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) data means that the vast majority of U.S. children are at increased risk for obesity and numerous chronic diseases--unless they learn to make more healthful choices for their meals and snacks.

"Both at snack time and mealtime, the majority of American kids are not getting a very big nutrient bang for their calorie buck. They are eating high-fat, low-nutrient foods that deny them necessary vitamins and minerals, " said Gladys Block, Ph.D., the leader of the analysis and professor of epidemiology and public health nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley. "Simple substitution of a fruit or vegetable for a high fat snack could go a long way in reducing their risks of becoming overweight or, in the long term, developing diabetes, heart disease and other chronic, debilitating conditions. Parents and other care givers need to help children make more healthful food choices."

NHANES III, a federally sponsored survey, shows that 75 percent of American children ages 6 to 11 years old eat a diet with more fat than the maximum U.S. recommended level of 30 percent. Moreover, on any given day, 45 percent of children eat no fruit, and 20 percent eat less than one serving of vegetables. The average 6 to 11 year-old eats only 3.5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, achieving only half the recommended 7 servings per day for this age group.

Simple Substitutions

"However, simple substitutions such as choosing a piece of fruit rather than potato chips for a snack for just one afternoon would lower the children's daily fat intake almost to the recommended level," Block said. Choosing a piece of fruit can also improve dietary intake of important nutrients like vitamin C, folate and fiber. According to NAHNES III data, many children are "at risk" for inadequate intake of these nutrients as well as vitamin A, vitamin E, zinc and magnesium.

"Children have increased their calorie intake but not their vitamin and mineral intake. They are loading up on foods relatively low in nutrients, and such poor habits and their health consequences can follow these kids into adulthood," Block says. "With the Surgeon General reporting that U.S. obesity rates in children increased nearly three-fold during the last 20 years, children need help in making more healthful meal and snack choices throughout the day, every day--to protect their health today and in the future."

Snack Stats

Snack time presents an excellent opportunity to substitute fruits and vegetables for less healthy options, Block notes. Eighty-three percent of kids reported eating one or more snacks on the day they were surveyed, and those snacks made up approximately 20 percent of their daily calories. The NHANES III analysis showed the most frequently reported foods eaten at snack time for this age group are, in order:

  • 1. Soft drinks
  • 2. Salty snacks such as potato chips, corn chips and popcorn
  • 3. Cookies
  • 4. Non-chocolate candy
  • 5. Artificially flavored fruit beverages
  • 6. Whole milk and chocolate milk
  • 7. Two percent/reduced fat milk
  • 8. White bread
  • 9. Chocolate candy
  • 10. Cake
  • 11. Ice cream
  • 12. Fruit

Making a single healthy substitution in a day can make a big difference, the analysis showed. For example, if a medium banana is substituted at snack time for a one-ounce mix of salty snacks such as potato chips, a child will get 12 percent less fat, 10 percent more fiber and 13 percent more potassium.

Beverage Buzz

Beverages also can have a significant impact on children's daily eating, Block noted. Soft drink consumption increased 21 percent among 2 to 5 year-olds over the last two decades and 37 percent among 6 to 9 year-olds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Substituting a single serving of 100 percent fruit juice (6 ounces) for a 12-ounce soft drink increases vitamin C by 56 percent, potassium by 13 percent and beta-carotene by 8 percent.

Mealtime Mishaps

At mealtime, children are more likely to eat French fries than any other vegetable, according to USDA data. But by substituting raw broccoli and carrot sticks for high-fat fries, the NHANES III analysis showed that a child could lower daily fat intake by 14 percent and increase beta-carotene intake by a whopping 216 percent!

"Encouraging kids to make healthy substitutions one small step at a time can help them develop sound eating habits, which can last a lifetime," said Amy Myrdal, MS, RD, Nutrition Communications Manager for Dole Food Company, Inc., which sponsored the NHANES III analysis. "Parents, family members, school officials and other influential people in their lives, including their peers, are a great model for teaching healthy eating habits. They can learn ideally from example or from encouragement. It's as simple as suggesting kids try something new for a snack, like vegetables with dip, instead of reaching for what they always grab --such as chips and pretzels, or making sure that a meal always includes a serving of vegetables or fruit - fresh, frozen, canned or dried."

Other facts from the NHANES III analysis of 5- to 10-year-olds include the following:

  • Fifty percent of children get 34 percent of their energy from fat; 25 percent get close to 39 percent of their calories from fat; 10 percent eat more than 43 percent of their calories from fat

  • Seventy-five percent do not meet the daily reference intake for potassium

  • Top five sources of calories, in order, are whole and chocolate milk, pizza, soft drinks, low-fat milk and cold cereal.

The analysis of NHANES III data was conducted by Block Dietary Data Systems of Berkeley, Calif., and was sponsored by Dole Food Company, Inc. NHANES III was a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1988-1994. The study included 2400 5 to 10 year-olds. Facts cited above also come from previously published data from the USDA's Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals (CSFII), 1989-1991 and 1994-1996.


Dole Food Company, Inc. is a founding member and leading produce industry supporter of the national 5 A Day for Better Health Program, launched in 1991 by the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation. For more information on Dole's 5 A Day nutrition education programs for elementary schools, visit

Dole Food Company, Inc., with 2001 revenues of $4.5 billion, is the world's largest producer and marketer of high-quality fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and fresh-cut flowers, and markets a growing line of packaged foods.

Amy Myrdal, MS, RD
Dole Food Company, Inc.
510-639-5550 ext. 14

Joanmarie Smith
Porter Novelli

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