The CDC found that 37.8% of children in a 2021 survey...

The CDC found that 37.8% of children in a 2021 survey didn't eat fruit daily in New York State and 55.6% went without a daily vegetable. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Nearly a third of children between 1 and 5 nationwide went without a daily serving of fruit in 2021, and nearly half didn't eat a vegetable the previous week, but just over 57% drank a "sugar-sweetened" beverage at least once, according to a CDC analysis of a survey released Thursday.

In New York State, even fewer children in the age group ate fruit and vegetables daily, according to the survey.

Long Island experts said the results point to a familiar conclusion: there's a need to help parents gain a deeper understanding of both the importance of children eating a steady diet of fruits and vegetables and the damage caused by unhealthy food and beverage choices over the long term.

"It's sadly not surprising," said Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, director of the nutrition division at the Department of Family, Population and Prevention Medicine at Stony Brook Medicine.

What to know

  • Nearly a third of children between 1 and 5 nationwide went without a daily serving of fruit in 2021 and nearly half didn't eat a vegetable the previous week.
  • In New York State, 37.8% of children didn't eat fruit daily and 55.6% went without a daily vegetable.
  • The CDC analyzed data from the 2021 National Survey of Children’s Health and released the results Thursday.

"I believe most parents have a general understanding that fruits and vegetables are healthy, but they tend to lose track of what their children are eating," Connolly-Schoonen said. "They don't have a deep understanding of how what children eat impacts every aspect of their physiology. We see them growing outside, but we can't see inside so we can't see negative consequences."

Other data has revealed these trends, noted Stephanie Di Figlia-Peck, lead registered dietitian at Cohen Children's Medical Center. The danger from children not eating enough fruits and vegetables is they miss out on "key nutrients," such as potassium, dietary fiber, and others that are important for their growth and development and "overall immune health and decreasing inflammation," Di Figlia-Peck said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data from the 2021 National Survey of Children’s Health to describe how frequently, according to parents' reporting, children between  1 and 5 years —18,386 responded overall — consumed fruits, vegetables and sugar-sweetened beverages, nationally and by state.

Nationally, the CDC found that 32.1% of children did not eat a fruit daily — it was 37.8% in New York — and 49.1% did not eat a daily vegetable in the preceding week -- again it was higher in New York, at 55.6%. Nationally, the CDC found that 57.1% drank a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during the preceding week. In New York, it was somewhat less, at 49.3%.

The CDC said in its analysis in the Feb. 17 issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: "Young children need specific nutrients to support their optimal growth and development. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help provide these nutrients. Limiting or reducing foods and beverages higher in added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, is important because added sugars are associated with increased risk of obesity, dental [cavities], diabetes, and cardiovascular disease."

Connolly-Schoonen said the damage done by this type of eating shows up in liver tests.

"What we see first is fatty liver among children. That's a direct result of excessive sugar-sweetened beverage intake. It increases fat stored in the liver and ultimately can lead to liver damage." 

Both experts noted that healthy foods and beverages are often replaced with fast foods and processed foods that lead to inflammation in the body, which can potentially result in conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

"Lots of children suffer from GI symptoms: constipation, diarrhea, bloating," Connolly-Schoonen said. "Parents see that, but I don't think they realize" a shift in diet is needed. 

"We want parents to be a role model," Di Figlia-Peck said. "We want family meal planning," urging parents to get their children involved in meal preparation. "Make food easy to handle. Cut it up." Young children, she added, especially like "crunchy" things.

Connolly-Schoonen said: "I wish people could see inside their children's bodies and see what's happening and prioritize it."

And the way unhealthy foods are marketed to children and their families "is really just setting them up for lifelong chronic illness. ... Most parents have the best of intentions for their kids."

She advised parents to put in their youngsters' lunchboxes bite-size colorful vegetables, such as carrot chunks, or cherry or grape tomatoes or bell pepper slices. And replace soda and juices with water, or seltzer "with a splash of juice."

Her message: "Vegetables should be every day, and fruits every day. Vegetables at lunch and dinner."

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