Wide Variety, Large Quantities of Snack Foods Are Driving Childhood Obesity

Another study has confirmed what most parents already know innately.

If you offer children a wide variety and large quantities of tasty, less-than-healthy snack foods, they will eat a lot of those foods – and get fat!

There are a couple of interesting thing about this study, however.

First, it focused on snack foods and the eating habits around them. Most previous studies into the effects of variety, quantity and even things like dishware and package size have focused on main meals.

Second, it limited the amount of time allotted for participants to consume snacks.

Third, the study found something very interesting regarding package and serving dish size.

Let’s dig in. The general summary of the findings is that offering children a wide variety and large quantities of energy-dense snack foods encourages them to eat more. The researchers believe that practice may be contributing to the childhood and general obesity problem in Australia, where the study was done, and beyond.

The research was led by a team from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. The findings were published in the International Journal of Obesity.

One of the most interesting findings of the study was regarding package or container size and intake. While it is generally accepted among health practitioners that offering larger packages or dish sizes encourages consumption of higher amounts of food. This study determined that it wasn’t a factor, at least in this study.

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Lead researcher Dr Jessica Kerr said their study found children weren’t greatly affected by container size, with food consumption mainly driven by the quantity/variety of snacks on offer.

“There has been a popular push by nutritionists and public health officials towards replacing large dishware with smaller versions to nudge people towards healthier decisions,” she said. “But we have found dishware size has very little effect on the amount of food consumed.”

Dr Kerr said while the overconsumption of snack foods is an important contributor to obesity, most people do not recognize the impact it has on their calorie intake.

“Children and adults should only consume energy-dense snacks occasionally — they do not need to be part of daily energy intake,” she said. “But the reality is that Australians typically get around 30-40 per cent of their energy intake from snack foods.”

Dr Kerr said three times as many children in Australia are now overweight or obese compared to 30 years ago.

“About 20 per cent (1 in 5) of children are overweight or obese,” she said. “There are many complications of children being overweight such as type 2 diabetes, orthopedic and respiratory disorders, liver problems and sleep apnea.”

Dr Kerr said until now studies into snacking behavior were limited by self-reported data or small sample sizes.

“Past dietary studies have mostly focused on main meals,” Dr Kerr said. “It is important to determine on a larger scale how dishware size and the quantity, variety, and energy density of snacks affect both child and adult snacking behavior when apart from each other outside of the family environment,” she said.

Researchers used participants who were being assessed at Child Health Check Point, which looked at the health of 1,800 kids aged 11 – 12 years and their parents. The assessment covered a variety of factors ranging from physical activity to sleep.

The study had participants eating during 15 minute snack breaks between 20 other health assessments.

The kids and parents were given a snack box which contained non-perishable food items like cheese, crackers, a muesli bar, biscuits, a tub of peaches and chocolate. The number of snack food items and container sizes for the food varied across the sample group. Children and parents ate separately and at different times.

Researchers recorded how much food each child and parent left in the box uneaten, and calculated the total grams and kilojoules consumed.

“Children who were offered more snack items consumed considerably more energy and a slightly higher food mass. Manipulating box/container size had little effect on consumption,” Dr. Kerr said.

The impact on adults was little, however Dr Kerr said adults were more aware that they were being observed and this may have impacted their eating behavior. Measurement of the impact of this self-consciousness would be difficult to quantify, since it would largely need to rely on self-reporting.

Dr Kerr said further research should be done with parents and community leaders to better understand the use and purpose of snack food items in the face of time pressures, marketing, and child preferences.

“Although there is sometimes a place for snack items to bridge the gap between main meals, our results reinforce calls to educate parents and schools about appropriate snack items and amounts of food to offer children,” she said.

“Our research indicates that more attention and resources should be directed to toward offering children smaller amounts of food and, specifically, fewer and less variety of energy-dense foods and pre-packaged items. Interventions should not solely invest in reducing dishware size in the expectation that this will lead to reduced intake of snack foods.”

Teaching children to be aware of the impact of time limitations, outside influences and even their own perceptions of foods made available to them would likely go a long way to helping them make better food decisions. Rather than focus on removing “unhealthy” choices, give children the tools to make healthier choices even when unhealthy alternatives are present.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Erasmus University Rotterdam, University of South Australia, Monash University, Deakin University, University of Sydney and the University of Auckland also contributed to the findings.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

Journal Reference – Jessica A. Kerr, et al., Child and adult snack food intake in response to manipulated pre-packaged snack item quantity/variety and snack box size: a population-based randomized trial. International Journal of Obesity, 2019

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