The ‘right’ type of snack can improve diet quality in children under the age of 11, according to researchers looking into how snack and meal frequencies affect total energy intake and diet quality.
Scientists at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston wanted to uncover the relationship between snacking and obesity, given the increasing levels of child obesity around the world.
“Estimates suggest that up to 60% of obese adolescents become obese adults and that dietary patterns established during childhood and adolescence often persist into adulthood. Accordingly, there has been an increased focus on diet and dietary behaviour in children and adolescents,” the researchers wrote.
Snacks had different diet impacts according to age
Published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, the research looked at eating frequency and its relation to energy intake and diet quality in a sample of low-income, urban schoolchildren aged 9 – 15 in the Boston area.
Findings showed snacks impacted energy levels and overall health differently, according to age.
“Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants [aged 9-11] we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality. In adolescents, however, our results suggested that snacks detract from overall diet quality while each additional meal increased diet quality,” said lead author and registered dietician E. Whitney Evans.
Diet quality was rated using the parameters outlined by the US Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index 2005 (HEI-2005) - a scoring system that measures the degree of compliance with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“In children aged 9-11, total eating and snack occasions increased their healthy index score by 2.31 points, whereas with 12-15 year olds each additional meal increased health indexes by 5.40 points but additional snacking decreased the score by 2.73 points,” the researchers wrote.
The differences were attributed to the fact that younger children were better at self-regulating intake and more receptive to parental guidance, while adolescents “typically have greater autonomy over their eating habits, have greater spending power and consume more meals outside the home”.
Positive energy: ‘Snacks don’t have to be vilified’
Findings showed that ‘additional eating occasions’ – above the normal level of meals and snacks – increased total energy in the children by 11.6%.
Of these, additional meals were associated with an 18.5% increase in total energy intake and additional snacks a 9.4% increase.
“Snacking contributes nearly one-third of total energy consumed, the majority of which comes from desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages. Compared with breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, snacks have a significantly higher energy density,” the researchers wrote.
Evans described additional snacking occasions as “high-stakes eating moments” because each snack contributed around half as much to total daily energy intake as each meal.
“Snacks don’t have to be vilified. 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,” she said.
She added that the best snacks at any age were nutrient-rich, rather than calorically dense.
Children were asked to provide basic demographic information and then, on two occasions, recall what they ate on the previous day.
The researchers then determined the number of meals and snacks, along with their total energy intake and diet quality score. Variables such as gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, level of physical activity and maternal education were taken into account.
The researchers said that “further research is needed to elucidate the role of snacking in excess weight gain in children and adolescents”.
Source: Public Health Nutrition
“The role of eating frequency on total energy intake and diet
quality in a low-income, racially diverse sample of schoolchildren”
Authors: E Whitney Evans, Paul F Jacques, Gerard E Dallal, Jennifer Sacheck and