Kids snack—a lot. This is a given, but what isn’t clear is what kind of snacking is best when it comes to promoting healthy eating habits.
Childhood obesity is a big problem, affecting 17% of children aged 2 to 19 years, according to a new report on snacking patterns. In this report, published in Public Health Nutrition,1 researchers investigated snacking patterns throughout childhood and how they impacted overall health.
Snacking has been recognized for some time as one of the modifiable factors in childhood obesity, according to a 2015 report,2 but specific patterns and their impact on overall health have not been clearly defined.
Madison N. LeCroy, PhD, a research affiliate in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the study, and says her team sought to examine the relationship between snacking patterns and body mass index (BMI). Weight and height measurements were analyzed alongside a 24-hour self-reporting of snacking behaviors.
Nutrition varies by snack pattern
Two clear snack patterns were noted as a result of the study, with “meal-like” and “beverage-like” patterns taking the lead.
“These patterns were identified according to the types of foods and beverages that children and adolescents consumed during snack occasions,” LeCroy says.
Meal-like patterns were characterized by high consumption of nonstarchy vegetables, meats, and grain, and beverage patterns included high consumption of unsweetened milk and sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Generally, we think of snacking as unhealthy. However, the meal-like snack pattern was actually characterized by consumption of foods that are healthy components of the US dietary recommendations,” LeCroy says. “Thus, it is not too surprising that consuming snacks that are “meal-like” was associated with improved diet quality.”
Younger children in particular may benefit from this snacking style, she adds, because they tend to consume more snacks in a day, obtaining an overall greater portion of their total dietary intake from snacking.
“Encouraging frequent consumption of well-balanced snacks—snacks that contain meats, nonstarchy vegetables, and grains—may help 2- to 5-year-old children from predominantly low-income, racial/ethnic minority households meet the US dietary recommendations,” says LeCroy. “Additionally, avoiding screen use during snacking may help youth improve their overall diet quality.”
Snacking during screen time was a big red flag in the study, LeCroy notes, adding that screen time snacking was associated with a lower overall diet quality among children in 3 of the 4 studies examined.
“Consistent with previous research that has examined screen use during meal consumption, this finding suggests that youth should avoid using screens during snacking to promote better overall diet quality,” LeCroy says.
Pediatricians should offer guidance to parents to support healthy snacking and keep watch on the child’s growth and development in regard to their nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some parent-friendly guidance3 on healthy snacking that clinicians can share with families. LeCroy says she hopes the report will motivate clinicians to address nutrition overall, but in particular snack quality.
“Ideally, this report will help improve the overall diet quality of low-income, racial/ethnic youth by providing guidance to pediatricians on how to counsel youth on snacking behaviors and intake,” she says.
1. LeCroy MN, Truesdale KP, Matheson DM, et al. Snacking characteristics and patterns and their associations with diet quality and BMI in the Childhood Obesity Prevention and Treatment Research Consortium. Public Health Nutr. 2019;22(17):3189-3199.
2. Brown CL, Halvorson EE, Cohen GM, Lazorick S, Skelton JA. Addressing childhood obesity: opportunities for prevention. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2015;62(5):1241-1261.
3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Choosing healthy snacks for kids. HealthyChildren.org website. Updated January 31, 2020. Accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Choosing-Healthy-Snacks-for-Children.aspx