Peer Reviewed

Healthy eating

In Children, Junk Food Accounts for Approximately 1 in 5 Calories

Junk food consumption remains a significant part of the average diet for children and adults in the United States despite new promising trends in junk food intake, according to the results of a recent study. 

To better understand the national trends in junk food consumption from 2001 to 2018, the researchers examined the mean consumption, as measured by percentage of energy (%E), and sources of junk food for both the total population and various subgroups.

The researchers utilized data from 9 cycles of the NHANES survey (2001-2002 to 2017-2018). Included were 29,970 children aged 2 to 19 years and 44,501 adults aged 20 years or older. The researchers used 1-d values for individuals with single recalls and 2-d means for others to measure trends over time.

Among children, the results indicated that the %E remained stable from 2001 to 2018 (18.1% to 17.5%). %E from crackers and snack/meal bars increased from 1.19% in 2001 to 1.35% in 2018 and from 0.38% in 2001 to 0.69% in 2018, respectively. %E from candy and other desserts decreased from 2.58% in 2001 to 1.96% in 2018 and from 3.11% in 2001 to 2.48% in 2018, respectively.

However, %E from junk foods decreased for adults within the same period (14.1% to 13.0%). %E from snack/meal bars also increased among adults, from 0.31% in 2001 to 0.78% in 2018, while %E from candy (1.97% to 1.55%), sweet bakery products (5.52% to 4.98%), and other desserts (2.19% to 1.86%) decreased among adults.

Among the largest contributors to junk food in 2017 to 2018 were:

  • Grocery stores (72.7% for children, 77.1% for adults)
  • Other sources (13.1% for children, 12.1% for adults)
  • Restaurants (8.05% for children, 9.11% for adults)
  • Schools (4.86% for children)
  • Worksites (1.99% for adults)


Compared with Mexican Americans, higher rates of junk food consumption were observed among non-Hispanic White and Black Americans. Junk food consumption was also higher among those with higher educations compared with those with lower educations, among women compared with men, and among older adults compared with younger adults.

“From 2001 to 2018, %E from junk food represented nearly 1 in 5 calories among children, without change, and nearly 1 in 7 calories, with modest decrease, among adults, with disparities in subgroups,” the researchers concluded.


—Leigh Precopio



Liu J, Lee Y, Micha R, Li Y, Mozaffarian D. Trends in junk food consumption among US children and adults, 2001-2018. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021;114(3):1039-1048.