New study outlines a generation of snackers

Kids now get 27% of their calories from junk food

March 04, 2010|By Kelly Brewington |

Lara DiPaola makes brownies with applesauce instead of oil, sneaks shredded carrots into her son's macaroni and cheese and gets her four children to tend to the pears, squash and tomatoes in the family garden.

But when she's in her home office, grinding out work on deadline, she has been known to tell her kids to grab a Pop-Tart for a snack.

"When you're busy, it's whatever's available," said DiPaola, a freelance writer from Severn. "Any parent, whether you've got four kids or just one, you are so inundated with so many things you have to do. Nutrition sometimes falls by the wayside, and we need to get back to that."

Doing so could be a long haul. Today's children are a generation of snackers - and they're not eating nuts and berries. U.S. children consume more than 27 percent of their daily calories from snacks, most of it sugary, salty, high-fat junk, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. That equates to nearly three snacks a day, an increase of 168 daily calories from 1977 to 2006, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found.

The figures don't bode well for a nation struggling with an obesity epidemic, researchers said. Kids today, like adults, eat more and exercise less. Families are busier, shuttling between work, school, errands and piano practice. And a fast-food culture promotes cheap, easy foods that claim to be healthy but are often loaded with empty calories. The result, say parents, nutritionists and physicians, is on-the-go munching of a lot of stuff that isn't real food.

"Twenty-five years ago, an apple was a piece of fruit. Today, apple is a flavor," said Tony Geraci, director of food and nutrition for Baltimore's public schools. "It's no longer associated with real food."

As a result, children don't know what healthy eating means, said Geraci. It's up to schools, parents and medical providers to help educate them and their families, he said.

The city school system has started by banning vending machines and replacing snack menus that included ice cream, cakes and cookies with locally grown produce. A federal grant used in 20 elementary schools introduces children to new fruits and vegetables as snacks. The program has received accolades from parents, teachers and even children who are excited to try kiwis and kumquats, said Mellissa Mahoney, dietitian and chef for Baltimore schools.

But not all children are impressed with the more healthful offerings, said Geraci. They associate chips, not apples, with snack food, he said. "We have conditioned kids to respond to fat, sugar and salt," he said. "It's an uphill battle, but we're working on it."

Better education is needed not just for children, but for parents and society as a whole, said Dr. Alan M. Lake, a Lutherville pediatrician and chairman of the obesity prevention task force of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. People often make mistakes reaching for foods with labels that say "low fat" when they aren't necessarily healthy, he said.

"Parents have the impression that if it's a low-fat food, it's also a low-calorie food," he said. "But it's not. It's often a higher-calorie version of the same food. Lower in fat, but higher in sugar."

Such claims on prepackaged snacks can lead to overindulging, said Dr. Lawrence J. Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center.

"Even though we have 100-calorie snack packs, there's not particularly nutritious food in there," he said. "And it doesn't stop you from opening a second pack."

Parents should stock their shelves with snacks that have high fiber and high water content and are packed with energy, he said. For instance, instead of a snack pack, try whole-grain crackers with a slice of apple or cheese.

Still, Cheskin acknowledged, such food can be more expensive per calorie than junk. And while farmers' markets and organic produce abound in middle-class neighborhoods, low-income communities don't always have access to fresh vegetables and fruit.

"If you are trying to feed a family, healthy food will eat up your food budget more than getting a bag of corn chips," he said.

DiPaola knows this all too well. It can cost just as much for a 24-pack of chips as individual snack sizes of carrots. She often buys carrots in bulk, cutting them up and dividing them in lunches. But that takes time.

Still, DiPaola maintains several rules: Family dinner is a must, and everyone must eat something green. But sometimes, her 16-year-old son balks at the menu.

"He asks 'Why can't we have 'normal food,' " she said. "That breaks my heart. My 16-year-old thinks normal food is pizza and Taco Bell."

While she tries to give her children healthful snacks, at school they're influenced by what their friends buy from vending machines and tempted by ice cream sold in the cafeteria.

"If the 16-year-old said, 'No, I don't want to grab the candy, I'll grab carrots,' he'll get heat from his friends," she said. "I think as parents, sometimes we think telling them is enough. But we have to tell them and reinforce it and reinforce it."

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