6 Tips for a Healthy School Start
Excessive snacking is a leading cause of the rising rates in childhood obesity and childhood health problems. Kids in the U.S. are snacking more than ever on junk food like salty chips, candy and similar foods, according to a new (3/2/10) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.
This increase in snacking that has occurred along with the rise in childhood obesity now accounts for up to 27 percent of daily caloric intake, putting millions of U.S. children at increased risk of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.
Published in the March 2010 issue of the journal Health Affairs, this study is one of the first to look at long-term eating patterns in children. It suggests a trend in which some children snack almost continuously throughout the day.
“Our study shows that children, including very young children, eat snacks almost three times a day,” said senior author Barry Popkin, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Such findings raise concerns that more children in the United States are moving toward a dysfunctional eating pattern, one that can lead to unhealthy weight gain and obesity.”
Popkin and his colleagues studied nationally representative surveys of food intake in more than 31,000 U.S. children from 1977 to 2006. They focused on childhood snacking patterns and discovered large increases. For example, in the first survey from 1977 to 1978, 74 percent of children aged 2 to 18 reported that they snacked on foods outside of regular meals. The most recent survey, conducted from 2003 to 2006, showed that number had jumped to 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 food choices for childhood snacking during the three decade period were salty, fatty snacks like chips, fries and crackers.
“Another surprising finding was that kids are eating more candy at snack time,” Piernas said. “That kind of snack can lead not only to weight gain but to tooth decay.”
Children of all ages increased their caloric intake from snacks by an average of 168 calories per day, up to a total of 586 calories, between the years 1977 and 2006. Children aged 2 to 6 showed the largest increase. They consumed an extra 181 calories per day during snack time compared to two decades earlier. This disturbing finding suggests an unhealthy eating pattern early in life, Popkin said.
Researchers also found that children are less likely to drink milk, which contains calcium and other nutrients needed for proper growth. They are more likely to reach for a processed fruit juice, which is almost all sugar, or other sugar sweetened beverages such as sports drinks, which are loaded with calories.
Children are also far less likely to take a fresh apple or any fruit or vegetable at snack time. This trend away from fruit and vegetables and toward more processed fruit juice is a harmful one because fresh produce contains fiber and lots of valuable nutrients that children need to stay healthy, Popkin said.
Dessert consumption declined from 1977 to 2006. Instead of eating them as dessert, however, today’s children snack on cake, cookies and other rich foods throughout the day. In children still eating desserts, these goodies account for a significant source of calories.
“Kids are eating nearly three snacks a day and that’s too much,” Popkin said, adding that parents should:
- Try to limit snack time to once a day for children age six and older.
- Make sure they stock up on plenty of healthy snack food items like apple slices, carrots and other fruits and vegetables.
- Limit a young child’s consumption of junk food or candy
- Talk to teens about the importance of a healthy diet that includes healthy snacks
Popkin believes the solution to the junk food problem and perhaps childhood obesity and childhood health problems might require broader action. He said, for example, that schools need to eliminate junk food sold in school vending machines or on the cafeteria line. Lawmakers might need to step in and regulate or restrict advertising that sells unhealthy foods to children, a practice that has been shown to increase snacking behavior.