Are snacks a risk for obesity?

Snacks tend to take more and more of a place in children’s diets: More than a quarter of the calories a child consumes are provided by snacks! They provide more calories than breakfast, and dinner together. As they constitute a major component of food intake, these snacks should contribute to a balanced diet, and at the same time prevent obesity. But what place should be reserved for these snacks? Should we limit them, or on the contrary let the child consume as much as he wishes? What are the measures to consider so that they are integrated into a healthy diet?



Do the children eat a little… a lot of snacks?

Recently, it was found that an average child consumes 3 snacks per day, in addition to the 3 main meals. In other words, a child eats more often than before: 1 in 4 children eats a snack every hour! Moreover, everything suggests that this new trend should continue! But, can we consider that many snacks coincide with a risk of obesity? Difficult to answer!

Questions remain as to whether a child should eat a lot or a little snack to prevent overweight! Recent data shows that a child who eats several snacks has a lower risk of becoming obese! In other words, the more frequently a child eats, the less risk he would be of developing excess weight! Despite certain hypotheses, it is too early to determine the causes which would explain the interest of snacks in weight control.

And what is behind these little snacks?

It would be especially the type of food consumed which constitutes a risk of overweight, rather than the frequency of the snacks! Unfortunately, according to the latest nutritional surveys in Canada and Quebec, 41% of the calories in these snacks come from foods such as chips, chocolate bars, sugary drinks, fruit juices, etc.

The good and the bad!

First, it seems that distributing food intake by inserting snacks between meals seems to represent an effective way to fight against obesity!

In fact, snacks allow the child to refuel himself with energy between meals, which in particular avoids a drop in his concentration capacities. Likewise, snacks can prevent uncontrollable hunger and limit the risk of the child consuming excess calories at main meals.

However, a high frequency of snacks can hinder the feeling of fullness / hunger that the child has in order to adjust his calorie intake to his needs. Indeed, the fact of eating snacks too often, especially so high in calories, no longer allows him to listen to his internal signals. In this situation, the child begins to eat again although he has no feeling of hunger. In other words, he eats because he has access to food, not because he needs it! This shows the importance of the food environment, that is to say the accessibility to food, especially if these represent a temptation for the child!

In summary, the best attitude regarding snacks seems to be to achieve a balance, that is, a meal structure (main and snacks) that allows a healthy distribution of energy throughout the day, as well. than good hunger management. We can therefore recommend that a child consume 5 meals daily, that is to say breakfast, lunch, supper, as well as a snack in the morning and one in the afternoon. The day should start with a lunch that avoids overconsumption at meals or at the next snack. Indeed, a child who does not eat breakfast is likely to eat more sugars at snacks, as well as more calories throughout the day, compared to a child who eats breakfast.

The importance of the food environment

If questions persist as to the best distribution of meals during the day, it is undeniable that the type of food consumed during snacks plays a major role in the food balance, as well as in the prevention of obesity. The child’s dietary environment should encourage him to consume healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, and dairy products. By healthy food environment, we include, among other things, the availability of healthy foods, as well as a favorable environment context during meals.

The context of meals indeed influences children’s food intake. When this is positive, the child more easily develops preferences, for example when presented with healthy foods during a pleasant meal, which allows the child to better appreciate them. In addition, meals eaten as a family also help to establish or maintain healthy eating habits. Indeed, it has been shown that meals shared with the family allow children to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals, to the detriment of foods high in fat and sugary drinks.

In addition, meals consumed as a family should also allow parents to serve as a role model. In fact, by adopting a healthy diet, parents have a beneficial influence on that of their child. For example, it may seem utopian that a child consumes a fruit if one of his parents consumes a candy bar at the same time! Unlike family meals, it is interesting to note that consuming a snack in front of the television is detrimental. Indeed, a child who eats in front of the television consumes more sweet and fatty products, to the detriment of fruits and vegetables. This child becomes at risk of developing excess weight, or even obesity! Thus, it is essential to prevent a child from consuming in front of the television. Unfortunately, according to a survey conducted across Canada,

Pay attention to the portion!

Paying attention to food portions can also influence calorie control. Indeed, presenting snacks with limited portions would be a way to avoid overeating. Concretely, the more we present a large quantity of food to the child, the more he will tend to eat a lot of it, regardless of his hunger! Based on this principle, we can deduce two recommendations: On the one hand, we avoid presenting excess products rich in fat and sugars, on the other hand, we encourage generous and varied portions of healthy products.

Don’t forget the variety and quality of food

It is also important to separate quantity and quality! As we have just seen, it is advisable to avoid serving gargantuan quantities! On the other hand, varying the food choices must allow the child on the one hand to cover his nutritional needs, and on the other hand to discover many foods. For young children, they have a very natural predisposition to prefer sweet and savory! However, getting the child used to other tastes allows him to eat a more varied diet. Indeed, children who have consumed early on a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals, will appreciate them and will eat more of them, to the detriment of sugary and high-fat products.

The advantage of avoiding foods rich in fat and sugar makes it possible to reduce caloric density, that is to say the capacity that a food has to provide calories for a given volume. Take the example of an apple which provides on average 75 kcal (150 g apple), unlike chocolate which provides 750 kcal for the same amount (150 g)! Thus, with the same volume, the apple provides 10 times less calories! This should encourage an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables, making it possible to satiate while avoiding excess calories. In addition, they are foods of high nutritional value, that is to say they contribute in a beneficial way to the coverage of the needs in vitamins and minerals. 

Little advice … big results!

  • The child should eat a snack in the morning and in the afternoon, in addition to the main meals.
  • Favor foods of high nutritional value, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, and dairy products. Get the child used to such foods from an early age, promoting variety!
  • Make foods of high nutritional value easily accessible and limit access to foods high in sugar and fat (which are of high caloric density).
  • When consuming products rich in sugar and fat, present them in small quantities.
  • During the snack, as with other meals, turn off the television. Promote a pleasant atmosphere, and if possible, share meals with the family!

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