While they expected that snacking would be a substantial contributor to kids’ intake, they were surprised to find that the nutritional value of snacks and meals differed among children of different age groups. .
The findings, led by first author E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University and the Weight Control and Diabetes Center at The Miriam Hospital, are published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
“Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality,” wrote Evans and colleagues from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, where Evans did the research under the guidance of senior author Aviva Must, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. “In adolescents, however, our results suggested that snacks detract from overall diet quality while each additional meal increased diet quality.”
The diet quality differences by age were significant. Among the 92 school-age children aged 9 to 11 in the study, each snack raised their diet quality by 2.31 points, as measured on the Healthy Eating Index, 2005, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among the 84 teens in the study, aged 12 to 15, each snack dragged the quality score down by 2.73 points, while each meal increased the quality score by 5.40 points.
Overall, each snack contributed about half as much to total daily energy intake as each meal, making them high-stakes eating moments, Evans said.
“Snacks don’t have to be vilified,” said Evans who is both a parent and a registered dietitian. “Snacks can be beneficial to children’s diets when made up of the right foods. But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children.”