November 22, 2010

More Kids Skipping Meals

When kids skip breakfast or dinner, they snack instead, making them likelier to take in empty calories.

The trend in children’s eating appears to be more snacks and less breakfast and dinner, a shift that may spell trouble since snack foods tend to be less healthy than foods consumed at meals.

Results from the American Dietetic Association Foundation’s 2010 Family Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey showed that breakfast is the meal that children are most likely to skip, with only 58% of Caucasian and Hispanic children reporting that they ate breakfast everyday, while 41% of African-American children said they ate breakfast daily. Twelve percent of Caucasian, 18 percent of African-American, and 12 percent of Hispanic children reported that they never or rarely ate breakfast.

Combining at least two food groups in a snack will result in a higher intake of important nutrients. Examples are peanut butter and whole grain crackers, string cheese and fruit, or yogurt with granola.

But it's not just breakfast. Dinner is skipped too. About a third of the kids in the survey reported they did not eat dinner every night.

So how are kids getting their calories? Nearly 60 percent of all children in the survey reported snacking immediately after school. And about 25 percent said they regularly snack after dinner and while watching television. Children also reported that they ate while doing other activities such as homework, playing computer games, and talking on the phone.

The ADA survey participants consisted of 1,193 pairs of parents and their children who ranged in age from 8 to 17 years.

A study published earlier this year found that children snacked almost three times a day with about 27 percent of their daily calories coming from salty, fatty and sugary treats. The most popular between meal snacks reported were dessert foods and sweet drinks. Children tend to be consuming more sugary fruit drinks and high-calorie sports drinks in lieu of milk which contains calcium and other nutrients necessary for proper growth, according to the study.

Breakfast and dinner meals provide nutrients that are crucial to children. Numerous studies have found that children who eat a nutritious breakfast function better in school than children who do not eat breakfast. Breakfast-skippers are more likely to perform poorly in activities that require concentration, score lower on tests, and exhibit shorter attention spans. Missed meals combined with poor quality snacking can lead to poor school performance, nutrient deficiencies (particularly iron), and impaired physical development.

While missing meals is never desirable for children, nutritious and well-planned snacks can help make up for missed nutrients though they are unlikely to fully replace the missing nutrients. Parents and other caregivers can help foster the development of healthy snacking habits in children when they provide nutrient-dense snack foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, nut butters, whole grain breads, cereals, or crackers, and dairy foods.

Combining at least two food groups in a snack will result in a higher intake of important nutrients. Examples are peanut butter and whole grain crackers, string cheese and fruit, or yogurt with granola. Such combinations can help pack nutrients into snacks that may be serving as replacements for missed meals.

Candy, soft drinks, and other forms of concentrated sweets should be limited in the diets of children. When permitted in large or unmonitored quantities and as everyday occurrences, nutrient deficiencies, obesity, or both can develop.

The ADA survey also pointed to the importance of school lunch as a source of nutrients for children.

The preliminary findings of the survey were released November 9, 2010 at the American Dietetic Association’s Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo in Boston.

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