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    Numbers Game: Answer

    img-setThe average 9 to 13 year old child in the United States consumes 33 percent of their daily calories in the form of solid fat — i.e.: butter, shortening — and added sugars (also known as “discretionary calories”).

    Source: Institute of Medicine

    Ideally, discretionary calories should make up no more than ten percent of someone’s daily caloric intake.

    This means that someone who consumes 2,500 calories a day is “allowed” up to 250 empty calories (“allowed” meaning that is the maximum amount that will have minimal negative implications on health).

    The fact that the average child is consuming three times the limit is particularly disturbing because it makes it abundantly clear that certain nutrient needs are not being met if only 67 percent of calories deliver vitamins and minerals.

    Sadly, federal authorities are too tied up in food industry lobbying to take any sort of stand.  Any time the “discretionary calories should make up no more than 10 percent” figure has been whispered as an “official figure”, the ever-present sugar lobby reminds those in power of its deep pockets.



    1. Derek Helderman said on May 10th, 2010


      Thanks for the awesome blog. This response isn’t meant as a knock on you, but rather a questioning of the validity of concepts such as discretionary calories.

      I’d like to know your opinion about how useful terms and concepts like “discretionary calories” are. We’ve (collectively, as nutrition professionals) thus far done a pretty poor job of slimming Americans’ waist lines using the most elementary of concepts. How is it that we think throwing out the idea of discretionary calories can somehow help?

      I think your explanation of discretionary calories is pretty succinct and understandable. However, take a look at MyPyramid’s (that would be, uh, your government) information regarding the topic: http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/discretionary_calories_count.html# Specifically, click the link titled “click here to see chart”. Is it just me, or does this make things even more difficult to understand? As an RD (and someone who understands very basic budgets, both in terms of calories and dollars), I get it. I just think a lot of people who can’t master the concept of reducing calorie intake to lose weight might not be ready for a concept like discretionary calories.

      Ok, sorry for the soap box. Thanks again for your blog. I’ve recently discovered it and have enjoyed your humorous, satirical take on nutrition for the masses. Looking forward to hearing your opinion!

    2. Andy Bellatti said on May 11th, 2010


      I absolutely agree with you.

      As far as I’m concerned, the term “discretionary calories” is helpful for information gathering (such as this factoid about what percentage of children’s diets are composed of said calories) and for providing nutrition professionals with a common reference point. From a public education standpoint, though, it is a most confusing term.

      I have yet to utter the term when speaking with a client. As for the chart you linked to — talk about making nutrition unapproachable and NOT lay-friendly!

      Thanks for your comment!

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