Unhealthy Snacking Increasing Among US Children

Study indicates that American children could benefit from a switch to low-sugar, nutrient-dense snacks.

Most Americans consume more calories than they need, but often fail to ingest the vitamins and minerals required for optimal health. To get those nutrients, most experts agree that a healthy diet is the best source.

A research team from the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota examined dietary patterns in children aged 2 to 11 years with specific attention to between-meal snacking. Their article, “Snacking for a Cause: Nutritional Insufficiencies and Excesses of US Children, a Critical Review of Food Consumption Patterns and Macronutrient and Micronutrient Intake of US Children,” was published October 30, 2014, in Nutrients.

The authors used data from “What We Eat in America” (WWEIA)—a portion of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—to identify dietary insufficiencies and excesses in children. In particular, they aimed to identify eating habits that adversely affect diet, such as consuming foods with poor nutrient content and high energy density.

After augmenting the WWEIA data with survey data from the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, the researchers found that Americans have much room for improvement when it comes to feeding kids.

Particularly, their findings indicate that today’s kids consume far more snacks than children did in the 1970s. Today, 97% of children eat 1 snack daily, and half of those kids eat 2 or more snacks. Most American children consume energy-rich/nutrient-poor snacks, which do little to enhance their typical excess energy/nutrient-poor regular meals.

The data show that children aged 2 to 5 years consumed 12 teaspoons of sugar per day, and children aged 6 to 11 years consumed about 18 teaspoons of sugar per day. Children who participated in the surveys consumed insufficient vitamin D, calcium, and potassium, as well as excess energy, carbohydrates, and sodium.

Left uncorrected, these dietary insufficiencies may lead to serious deficiencies, obesity, and chronic illness as children age. Snacks can provide necessary nutrients if they are selected carefully, but often, snack choices are laden with carbohydrates and added sugars.

The researchers suggest replacing poor snack choices with nutrient-dense foods, and they specifically recommend yogurt, fruit, and vegetables as nutrient-dense and wise choices. Adding one 6-ounce serving of yogurt every day, for example, would help most children meet or come close to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations for critical nutrients.