The (Supposed) Scourge Of Snacktime

A recent study says kids are snacking more — and parents and scientists alike are up in arms. But are chips and pretzels really kids' worst enemies?

According to Melissa Healy of the LA Times, a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that kids in 2006 ate 168 more calories per day in snacks than kids back in 1977. The percentage of children who eat one or more snacks also rose during that period, from 75% to 98%. Study author Dr. Barry Popkin told the New York Times Well Blog, "My underlying fear is that we're moving away from being hungry and eating for satiation to just eating. Food is there, and we eat." He bemoaned the fact that kids are consuming more sweet drinks and more salty foods like pretzels, adding, "It would be great if they were eating fruits and vegetables and reduced-fat milk - and every now and then a cookie or two. But the foods are going from bad to worse."

And in January, Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in the Times of another study showing that the percent of Americans who ate three or more snacks a day climbed from 11% to 42% between 1977 and 2002. She complained,

What is especially baffling where I live, in Los Angeles, is how often the kind of parental paranoia that obsesses about school ratings, vaccines and myriad imagined plagues is matched by utter disregard for the nutritional downsides of mowing down Fruit by the Foot every afternoon at 4. Rarely do I see a parent show up on the soccer field with a homemade snack, or even a bag of carrots. Oreos are the post-game snack of choice, even in sports leagues dominated by upper-income parents.

What's interesting about snack-steria is that it seems to focus, so far, on children of privilege. Healy writes,

Overall, snacks have become an integral part of American children's mobile and highly programmed lives: Toddlers en route to play groups are plied with nibbles in the car to stave off tantrums; school-age children are met with energy bars for the ride to lessons or sports activities; older kids graze as they contemplate homework and check their Facebook pages.

The kids at risk for snacktime here appear to be those "overscheduled" kids we hear so much about, the ones with lots of activities and parents free to drive them to and fro. But while, as Popkin says, fruit is probably preferable to Fruit by the Foot, it's debatable whether kids really have that much to fear from snacking itself. Of the 168-snack-calories figure, Healy writes, "For some, those extra 1,176 calories a week could amount to as much as 13 1/2 pounds of body fat a year." These figures are a little misleading since meal calories have actually gone down since 1977 — as Tara Parker-Pope the Times Well blog points out, overall calorie consumption has only gone up about by about 113 calories per day. And as another post by Parker-Pope notes, small increases like that don't produce as much change as we think — "The rise in children's obesity over the past few decades can't be explained by an extra 100-calorie soda each day."

A bigger issue — for rich and poor kids alike — may be time. If middle- and upper-class children are so overscheduled that they get most of their calories in the car, maybe it's time to cut back on activities. And on the other side of the income scale, if parents have to work such long hours that they don't have time to feed their kids real meals, then America has much bigger problems than pretzels.

Children Are Hungrier For Snacks, Study Finds [LA Times]
U.S. Children: Generation Snack [NYT Well Blog]
In Obesity Epidemic, What's One Cookie? [NYT Well Blog]
Snack Time Never Ends [NYT]