Children in the United States snack almost three times a day on salty chips, candy, and other junk food, according to one of the first studies to look at long-term eating patterns in children. The increase in snacking—which now accounts for more than 27 percent of daily caloric intake in children—added 168 calories per day to kids’ caloric intake between 1977 and 2006.
The new research was published yesterday in the March 2010 edition of Health Affairs, which focuses on the child obesity epidemic and was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Our study shows that some children, including very young children, snack almost continuously throughout the day,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lead author of the paper. The rise in childhood obesity, meanwhile, has put millions of children at risk of chronic conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.
Media Coverage. The work by Popkin and Carmen Piernas, also at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has attracted quite a bit of attention in the media. “The Web is abuzz” about the study, wrote Rebecca Ruiz at Forbes. Tara Parker-Pope wrote about the study in her New York Times blog “Well”; her story contains this quote from Popkin: “My underlying fear is that we’re moving away from being hungry and eating for satiation to just eating. Food is there, and we eat.”
In her blog at the Boston Globe, Lylah Alphonse noted the study’s indication that unhealthy eating habits begin early in life: “I thought the age group with the largest snacking increase would be teenagers — they eat pretty much everything that isn’t nailed down, right? Wrong. Young kids, age 2 to 6, were the ones who consumed the most calories via snacks, the study found.” The research by Popkin and Piernas was also discussed by CBS, USA Today, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and many other outlets from BusinessWeek to Nickelodean.
What The Study Found
Popkin and Piernas studied nationally representative surveys of food intake in more than 31,000 U.S. children from 1977 to 2006. The researchers zeroed in on snacking patterns and found large increases: For example, in 1977 to 1978, 74 percent of children ages 2 to 18 said they snacked on foods outside of regular meals. In 2003 to 2006, that number had jumped to a whopping 98 percent.
“Kids still eat three meals a day, but they’re also loading up on high-calorie junk food that contains little or no nutritional value during these snacks,” Popkin said.
The largest increase in the types of snacks kids were eating during the three-decade period: salty snacks like chips and crackers. Another surprising finding: Kids are eating more candy at snack time, an unhealthy habit that can lead not only to weight gain but also to cavities.
Children of all ages increased their caloric intake coming from snacks by an average of 168 calories per daybetween 1977 and 2006. As noted above, the largest increase was found in children ages 2 to 6, who consumed 182 more calories per day in snacks, a troubling finding that suggests an unhealthy eating pattern early in life.
Sugar-Laden Beverages, Sweets Are Replacing Milk, Fruits & Vegetables
In addition, the researchers found the type of snack food or beverage had changed during the last three decades. Children are less likely to drink milk, which contains calcium and nutrients needed for proper growth; and they’re more likely to reach for fruit juice, which is almost all sugar, or sweetened beverages such as sports drinks that contain a lot of calories.
At the same time, children today are less likely to grab a fresh apple or a vegetable at snack time. The trend toward more fruit juice and less fruit and vegetables is a dangerous one because fresh produce contains fiber and lots of valuable nutrients that children need to stay healthy, Popkin said.
He also noted that consumption of desserts declined from 1977 to 2006. However, children today still snack on cake, cookies, and other rich foods, which account for a significant source of calories.
“Kids are eating nearly three snacks a day, and that’s too much,” Popkin said. He recommends that parents try to limit snack time to once a day for children six and older and make sure they stock up on plenty of healthy snack food items like apple slices, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables. Parents should also curtail young children’s consumption of junk food and candy and talk to older children about the importance of a healthy diet, including snacks.