April 6, 2001 -- Ravenous kids and teens are raiding refrigerators between meals, and they are snacking more than their predecessors.
According to a study of data from three national surveys, about 80% of kids snacked daily in the 1970s, and now more than 90% do. And over the past 20 years, the number of snacks that kids eat per day has increased by 32%.
What's worse, they are opting for high-fat, sugary foods that are loaded with calories, says nutrition expert and study author Barry M. Popkin, PhD. And this increase in snack attacks likely is contributing to the soaring rates of childhood obesity -- and its related complications.
Also, snacks of the 1970s were lower in calories than they are today. In fact, the amount of daily calories derived from snacking has increased by 30% in the years studied. And when compared with regular meals, snacks provided less calcium, which kids need to build healthy bone, and more energy from fat. The findings, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, include snack data from more than 21,000 children aged 2-18 collected during 1977-78, 1989-91and 1994-96.
Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is unsure why kids are snacking more today then in the past, but he has some ideas. "Foods are around the home, kids watch TV and eat a great deal of the time, and parents do not restrict options. If kids play outside, they have fewer opportunities to snack, but passive activity seems to encourage snacking."
Also, the fact that moms and dads often work outside the home may make them more likely to purchase fattening, processed foods, Popkin speculates.
More than two-thirds of all snacks come from the home, he says. "A small proportion comes from schools. While the public health field is worried about vending machines in the schools, particularly selling sugared drinks, we do not know how important this is overall now," he says.
So what's a parent to do?
Start by purchasing fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, and other healthful snacks, Popkin tells WebMD. "If you don't buy the Twinkies, your kids won't eat them," he says. "If both good and bad snacks are in a home, the kid will choose the bad ones. We need to reduce the opportunities when they can select the less healthful options."
Always "have plenty of fruits and vegetables available to eat," says Jeff Hampl, PhD, RD, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and professor of nutrition at Arizona State University in Mesa.
Marvin Terry, a father of two, says he stocks his refrigerator with carrots, celery, low-fat cheese, and low-fat yogurt.
"If my kids want a dry snack, I buy low-fat granola bars and other fat-free or low-fat chips," says Terry, of Bellmore, N.Y. "There's nothing for them that's bad.
"On school days, they are out of the house until about 4 p.m., so they have a snack before dinner and sometimes after dinner. On weekends, they snack once or twice during the day."
Terry's daughter, Amanda, is more of a snacker than his son. But at 11, she is becoming more interested in her weight and figure, so she is opting for healthier snacks and taking an interest in nutrition, he says. "For a snack, she'll go to the refrigerator and take an apple or an orange, while her brother would always prefer a cupcake."
Nutritionist and mother Davida Kleinman, RD, MA, of Doylestown, Pa., says that she chooses whole foods over processed foods when choosing snacks.
"When you choose whole foods, kids eat smaller amounts that are more-filling and more nutrient dense, so it helps them get through the day," Kleinman says.
And if you don't buy processed foods, "kids don't grow up exposed to them [and] are less likely to grow up and reach for them," says Hampl.
When kids are hungry between meals, Kleinman recommends popcorn sprinkled with Parmesan and whole-grain tortilla chips with natural salsa or guacamole for dipping.
"Instead of cookies or crackers, I'll use dry cereal and pretzel mixes with Cheerios and multigrain Chex. I try to avoid the frosted-variety of cereal," she says.
If kids have a sweet tooth, Kleinman suggests raisins, fresh berries, and yogurt pops.
Kleinman's rule of thumb: "If you cut it up, they will eat it," she says. "As long as I have things cut up, my 2-year-old will eat them whether orange wedges or sliced apples. And if you have dips available, that makes snack foods like baby carrots even more appealing," she says.
Good nutrition starts with setting a good example, says Hampl.
"This normally starts during infancy," he tells WebMD. "Don't make a face when you put a spoon in babies mouth."
Agreeing with Kleinman, he suggests chopping up fruit and vegetables to make then more snackable.
The amount of snacks that a child consumes should depend largely on how active he or she is, he says. "If a child is very active and runs around outdoors, expect them to have more snacks. But they may not need as many snacks on a couch potato day or rainy day."
Still, kids are often hungrier on rainy days because they are bored, he points out. "Encourage indoor activity or healthy snacks such as carrots and celery -- even with peanut butter, it's still is a better choice than a bagged processed food."