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The average U.S. child snacks three times a day. Concerned about the role of snacking in obesity, a team of researchers set out to explore how eating frequency relates to energy intake and diet quality in a sample of low-income urban schoolchildren in the
The findings, led by first author
"Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality," wrote Evans and colleagues from the
The diet quality differences by age were significant. Among the 92 school-age children aged 9 to 11 in the study, each snack raised their diet quality by 2.31 points, as measured on the Healthy Eating Index, 2005, developed by the
Overall, each snack contributed about half as much to total daily energy intake as each meal, making them high-stakes eating moments, Evans said.
"Snacks don't have to be vilified," said Evans who is both a parent and a registered dietitian. "Snacks can be beneficial to children's diets when made up of the right foods. But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children."
The best snacks at any age, she said, are ones that are nutrient-rich, rather than calorically dense.
To conduct the study, Evans and a team of registered dietitians asked kids (with parental consent) at four
Evans, Must, and their colleagues determined the number of meals and snacks reported by each child, along with their total energy intake and diet quality score, as measured by the Healthy Eating Index, 2005. In all their analyses, the researchers accounted for variables such as gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, maternal education, and levels of physical activity.
The study data do not overtly explain why snacking has opposite effects on diet quality depending on a child's age, but the researchers note that younger children more frequently depend on (and perhaps abide) grownups, while older kids are more often making their own snacking choices.
The findings suggest a clear decay in snacking quality as children age. Rather than despairing, however, parents, educators, and other care providers can make use of the findings, Evans said. One step could be to emphasize good snacking habits among younger kids, who may be relatively receptive to such messages, so that their potential decline may start from a better place. Another is to recognize that adolescents may be inclined to make worse choices and take steps to prevent that.
"It's important to help adolescents understand the implications of snacking, Evans said. "For example, snacks that could occur as mindless eating in front of the television may be the ones that increase their weight over time."
A third strategy is to embrace the clear importance of meals, especially for adolescents. The diet quality score rose 5.40 points with each meal for teens and 3.84 points with each meal for younger kids.
"Meals, especially family meals, really have a great potential for increasing the diet quality of adolescents," Evans said.
In addition to Evans and Must, other authors on the paper are
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