The Snack Epidemic

Cookies at school, crackers for car rides, chips after sports ... This around-the-clock nibbling is hurting kids' eating habits -- and their health.
Snacking Clock

The cupcakes put me over the edge. Every Saturday, I had watched quietly as a convenience store's worth of junk food was handed out after my son's peewee soccer games: cookies, chips, doughnuts, cheese-filled pretzels, fruity drinks. I didn't want to speak up and ruffle feathers. I didn't want to be that mom.

But on this day, after the kids played a 45-minute game during which most never broke a sweat, they were given fruit punch and cookies -- plus enormous, frosted cupcakes. It was 10:30 a.m. I was angry, especially at myself for keeping quiet. So I vowed to do something. The next season, I asked my son's coach if we could eliminate junk-food snacks in favor of fruit -- and then I held my breath. To my relief, his response was "I couldn't agree more!" I told the team parents that the coach had given the idea his blessing, so they were on board too. I did the same when T-ball began. Each week, the kids devoured the fruit without complaint.

But not everyone liked my plan. Some of my friends pitched the snack policy to their kids' teams and got sharply worded e-mails and even the cold shoulder from other parents at practice. The message: You can bring fruit for your kid, but our kids deserve a treat after games -- and after all, it's just once a week. When I suggested a league-wide healthy-snack policy for soccer and T-ball, I was rebuffed by the organizers. Who was I to dictate what kids were allowed to eat? What was so wrong with a few cookies?

Yet it wasn't just a few cookies -- and it wasn't just during sports. My kids were being fed junk food everywhere: vanilla wafers at their preschool snacktime, lollipops for class rewards, gummy fruit snacks at after-school clubs. And that was on top of the snacks I was already giving them. Even though I was doling out healthier fare (I am, after all, a registered dietitian), I realized that I was misusing snacks too: a banana promised to my toddler for getting into his stroller, crackers to quell my kids' boredom on long car rides. It occurred to me that my children were rarely without food. And then I had the nerve to be irritated when they weren't hungry for dinner?

Nonstop Snacking

Our kids are snacking more than ever before. In the late 1970s, the average kid between the ages of 2 and 6 ate one snack a day between meals, but today kids typically eat almost three, according to a study by Barry Popkin, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, as any mom with raisins strewn inside her handbag knows, some children eat even more than that.

Of course, snacks have long been billed as a healthy part of a child's diet. "They're important because kids have a smaller stomach and high energy needs," says Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood feeding specialist in St. Paul. Still, even if you're serving relatively benign snacks like string cheese or graham crackers, continually feeding children can have negative consequences. "When kids are allowed to eat all day, it robs them of the chance to ever develop an appetite," says Dr. Rowell. And it can make things worse for picky eaters: "If kids aren't coming to the table at least a little hungry, they're not as willing to try new foods."

Obesity experts now believe that the frequency of eating, not just bigger portion sizes, is also to blame for the uptick in calorie intake for kids and grown-ups alike. "Our children are being offered food at every turn," says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. And adding just one extra snack each day can make a big impact. In fact, it's possible that childhood obesity is driven by as little as 165 extra calories a day for kids ages 2 to 7, say researchers at both Harvard and Columbia universities. That's roughly the amount in a handful of potato chips.

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