March 2, 2010 -- Kids in the U.S. are gobbling down more unhealthy snacks daily than ever before, a new study shows.
The study, published in the March issue of the Health Affairs, shows that children snack almost three times a day on candy, salty chips, and other junk food.
Moreover, University of North Carolina researchers say American kids are drinking more sugar-heavy fruit juices and sweetened sports energy beverages that are packed with calories.
The researchers say the study is one of the first to look at long-term eating patterns in children, and indicates that snacking now accounts for more than 27% of kids' daily calories.
Between 1977 and 2006, the study shows, snacking added 168 calories per day to kids' caloric intake.
"Our study shows that some children, including very young children, snack almost continuously throughout the day," says Barry M. Popkin, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in a news release. "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 Carmen Piernas, also of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studied nationally representative surveys of food consumption in more than 31,000 kids ages 2 to 18 in the U.S. from 1977 to 2006.
They homed in on snacking patterns and found large, disturbing increases over the past few decades.
In 1977-1978, for example, 74% of the children said they snacked on foods outside of regular meals. That exploded to 98% in 2003-2006.
Popkin says in a news release that children still eat three meals a day, "but they're loading up on high-calorie junk food that contains little or no nutritional value during these snacks."
The biggest increase over the three-decade period was in salty snacks, such as crackers and chips. The researchers also say they were surprised to find that kids are eating more candy at snack time, an unhealthy habit that not only can lead to obesity but to cavities.
The largest increase in caloric intake from snacks was found in kids ages 2 to 6, who ate 182 more calories per day in snacks, which the researchers termed a troubling finding.
Not only are today's kids more likely to choose sugary fruit drinks over milk, they're less likely to pick up a fresh apple or vegetable for a snack than in past decades, the researchers say.
Popkin says parents should try to limit snack time to once per day for children 6 and older and make sure plenty of healthy foods are available, such as apple slices, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables.
Children between 2 and 18 are "moving toward a consumption pattern of three meals plus three snacks per day," the researchers conclude, adding that snacking habits are playing a big role in today's pediatric obesity epidemic.