Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. Nearly one third of all children in the country are overweight or obese. Excess weight sets children up for a long list of health problems as they grow older and also keeps them from fully enjoying their childhood. There are many factors contributing to this rise in childhood obesity, one of which is snacking.
A snack can be an effective way for a hungry child to refuel between meals, however, the problem lies in the foods that children choose to snack on. Calorie-dense foods like cakes, cookies and potato chips give kids a dose of sugar and fat without imparting any nutrients.
A common reaction among parents is to strictly regulate their children’s access to snacks. However, this strategy can backfire. While a child may snack healthfully at home, when in an unregulated environment they are more likely to overindulge in unhealthy snacks than children whose parents are less restrictive.
Healthy Snacks Just as Satisfying
A recent study shows that healthy snacks can make children feel full just as well as unhealthy snacks, while saving on calories. Brian Wansink, Ph.D, Mitsuru Shimizu, Ph.D and Adam Brumberg interviewed a group of 201 third to sixth grade students. Each student was given a plate of cheese, a plate of vegetables, a plate of vegetables and cheese, or a plate of potato chips while watching cartoons. The researchers asked them about how full they were at the beginning of the cartoon, after watching one episode, and again after a second episode.
The vegetable plate allowed children to feel as full as those who consumed the potato chip plate. The vegetables also contained fewer calories. Overweight children and those from low-involvement families (families that spend less time eating together) showed a relatively larger reduction in calories consumed when eating the vegetable and cheese plate instead of the potato chips. Average weight children ate 60 percent fewer calories when eating vegetables over chips, while overweight and obese children ate 76 percent fewer.
Another interesting finding from this study can be found in the amount of potato chips consumed. The children who ate the most potato chips were those who came from low-involvement families. When coupled with the finding that children from low-involvement families ate an average of 76 percent fewer calories when presented with a healthy snack choice, it follows that a family that eats together is more likely to raise children who eat smaller portions of junk foods.
What Should Kids Snack On?
The emphasis on snacking for kids should be on healthy, low calorie snacks. While a treat every now and again will not do any harm, it is not advised on a regular basis. Fruits and vegetables are a great place to start for kids’ snacks. Fruits are especially useful because they do not require any special preparation. Fruits tend to come in a single serving size – one apple, orange, or banana is a filling and healthy snack. Grapes are another good choice, and are fun for kids.
Dairy products make good kids’ snacks (provided they are eaten in moderation). A stick of string cheese, a cup of yogurt, or even a glass of milk gives kids proteins and a hefty dose of calcium without overloading them with calories.
Finally, whole-grain baked snacks can be appropriate in reasonable quantities. Air popped popcorn, whole-grain crackers or baked pretzels are easy to prepare and fun for kids to eat. Be careful about the amount of salt added to these snacks.
When Should Kids Snack?
Kids should snack when they are hungry and meal time is a while away. Try not to encourage kids to snack while watching television or playing a video game. This sort of mindless eating can lead to the consumption of more calories than necessary. It can also set kids up for bad eating habits later on in life.
Snacking is just one factor of many that impacts childhood obesity. Just as relevant is the amount of exercise children get. As their parent, you are the person your kids will model when it comes to being active. Engage in active pursuits with your children and they will be more motivated to turn off the TV.
A well-rounded approach to snacking can help kids consume fewer calories. Encourage healthy behaviors and your children will be more likely to stay at a healthy weight.