The Snack Epidemic

Junk-food Junkies

Empty cupcake wrapper

Avery Powell

Some moms and dads go out of their way to serve their children only the most nutritious offerings at snacktime."But many parents think of snacks as treats or they grab food that's convenient, which tends to be high in sugar, salt, and refined carbs," says Dr. Rowell.

Not so for Alissa Stoltz, a mom of two in Livingston, New Jersey. When her older daughter started preschool, Stoltz was dismayed by the low-nutrient munchies like pretzels and sugary cereal served in class every day. Even worse, birthdays were celebrated with cupcakes and multiple cups of juice. Stoltz doesn't mind her daughter having these kinds of foods once in a while. "But this happens five mornings a week, so I feel like I have to be stricter about sweets and snacks at home," she says.

There's certainly some room in a child's day for goodies. "One small sweet treat a day can help teach kids about balance and to not see sweets as forbidden foods that become even more alluring," says Kathy Isoldi, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition at LIU Post in New York. The trouble is, there seems to be no balance, with every gathering cause for a special snack. According to Dr. Isoldi's newest research, kindergartners gobble up more than 450 calories -- 35 percent of their daily calorie needs -- during one typical classroom birthday celebration.

And while some parents don't see the harm in an occasional birthday cupcake, or a doughnut during library storytime, it's the additive effect that's worrisome. "It's easy to look at one isolated junk-food snack and say it's okay," says Dr. Freedhoff. "But there are likely multiple times a day when someone is offering your child calorie-laden treats. It's an ongoing, never-ending parade, and it adds up to a huge problem."

Even kids in sports may not be able to offset this calorie surplus. Research at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis found that an 8-year-old burns about 150 calories in an average soccer game -- yet the typical postgame snack has between 300 and 500 calories. "It's so strange that sports have become associated with sweets," says researcher Toben Nelson, Sc.D. "And parents are practically competing with each other to see who can bring the 'best' snack."

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