March 2nd, 2010
10:55 AM ET

Not all snacks are created equal

By Matt Sloane
CNN Medical Producer

For many American adults, the snack was a childhood institution. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon and after school, they were just a part of life. Those provided by schools were often pretty healthy. But more often than not, snacks from home were less so - a pudding cup, processed cheese and crackers (with that little red plastic stick for spreading), cookies or even chips. According to new research, it's only gotten more important in kids' lives today. Researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill followed more than 30,000 kids from age 2 to age 18, and found that almost 98 percent of them snacked on a regular basis – sometimes as often as three times per day. They also concluded that, on average, snacks are responsible for 27 percent of our children's calories each day.

"Kids are eating 187 more calories per day in snacks than they were in 1977," said Carmen Piernas, the study's co-author, "and the snacks they're eating are largely high-fat, low-nutrient foods."

Well of course! What could a kid possibly want more than a high-fat, low-nutrient snack wrapped in pretty packaging, that tastes amazing??

But, Piernas says, those low-nutrient snacks can add up to hundreds of empty calories per day, and she is putting the onus on parents to change these habits.

"The message we are sending to parents is: Cut snacking down to once or twice per day, depending on activity level, and make them healthy snacks."

Her suggestions? Apple slices, carrot sticks and lowfat milk.

"They are easy to prepare at home, and kids really enjoy them."

Carrot sticks and apple slices may not be as enticing as sweetened cookies and crunchy chips, but serving those may help your child build healthier eating habits.

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Maria H-Miami

    Sorry, but speaking from personal experience, I've been on the end of getting lectured, scolded by parents obsessed with this new snack habits (it's like a Fraternity) causing fights with other parents, relatives, neighbors, friends who don't follow the snack rules, it can get ugly, reading every label of the food being served and the result is nervous kids with stomach problems, depressed, sad, anti-social because they are prohibited from eating regular snacks anywhere they go. These parents do get nutty. Carmen Piernas should hang out at her local supermarket and study mother's shopping for these snacks.

    I think that it is irresponsible to publish this study, for Carmen Piernas to put the task on parents to change kids snack habits without she making available dietitians, counselors that parents can contact to make sure they are proceeding correctly without causing stress to kids, relatives, friends, schools, neighbors.

    I do agree with healthy snacks but I also believe you have to give kids a break.

    March 2, 2010 at 17:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jenni

    Really? How hard it is to slice an apple, peel a banana, or open a bag of carrot sticks? And since when does eating fresh fruits and vegetables cause kids to have stomach problems and become depressed and anti-social? Research shows just the opposite, actually; that people who eat a diet of processed foods are more likely to be depressed than those who eat fresh, whole foods.

    March 2, 2010 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Amanda

    Why do you need a dietitian or counselor to tell you that veggie sticks or apple slices and milk (white, not chocolate) are better for your child than Chips Ahoy and a Coke? How is it stressful?

    Also how is it irresponsible to publish a study that says, "Hey, we should be feeding our kids actual food and not empty, processed junk." Kids don't need soda or juice. Ever. They need real, whole foods. Instead of juice, give your child a glass of water or milk or unsweetened tea. Not everything your kid eats has to be sweet. Fatty, sweet foods make you crave fatty, sweet foods. Kids are kids because they need guidance to develop responsible life habits.

    March 2, 2010 at 21:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Maria H-Miami

    Jenni, Amanda – Obviously, you are the very parents I have been scolded, lectured by. All parents should consult a dietitian / counselor/ pediatrician before putting a child on these very strict snack diet to avoid health problems( depending on the level of physical activity) and mental stress problems obsessive parents can cause them. By the way, tea stains teeth really bad, unless your child brushes after every glass of tea. Tea has Caffeine, tea is a diuretic, in kids it can cause the same as adults such as headaches, sleeping problems, upset stomach, nervousness, problems with concentration, bitter tea can have an impact on the liver, can cause kidney stones, and tea and sunshine don’t mix. I read it can even cause heart problems in kids. And be careful many bottled water is missing fluoride ( talk to your dentist ) and many water filters filter out fluoride. Which one is more dangerous tea or a cookie, popcorn, crackers with cheese, fruit juice?

    I wrote that kids suffer stomach problems not due to the food but the stress parents put on them not only from watching their parents get into fights with other parents, relatives because they disagree on the snack/food being served but also watching their parents examine the food/snack first before the child is allowed to eat it, having to leave a party because the snack is inadequate. Kids become anti-social to avoid embarrassment, punishment from their parents. And yes depressed, sad because they are made to feel trapped, suffocated by the parents themselves, so much for avoiding processed foods.

    I am surprised neither of you have been to kids’ parties, sports events, events and have witnessed kids getting scolded, reprimanded, punished for eating snacks not approved by the parents. I have watched children cry, become fearful, throw up the food in front of everyone. Just Saturday at Borders bookstore the mother threaten to ground her daughter if she ate a chocolate chip cookie, is this nuts or what?

    March 3, 2010 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sophie


    You're not wrong in the sense that a child should never be driven to a point of fear and undue stress with regard to food. But you're making an entirely hyperbolic arguement, only using the most extreme examples of overbearing parents ruining a child's relationship with food and his or her own body. There are countless parents who help their children foster a wonderful relationship with food by giving them delicious and healthy snacks and involving kids in choosing and preparing the food. To not help a child learn to make healthy choices early in their life is wildly irresponsible of the parent. It's about empowering a kid to know what they are putting into their bodies, and to learn how to make healthy choices. That doesn't mean you can never have sweets, but it does mean that you recognize what kinds of food will make you feel better than others. Processed foods, packed with the chemicals, sugars and refined flours, make kids and adults alike easily exhausted (after a brief sugar high), craving more junk when they aren't hungry anymore, and recieving no actual nutrients from what they put into their bodies. Should kids have fun? Absolutely. But how fun is it to have no energy, always be reaching for a snack because what you're eating doesn't keep you full, and to be more focused on eating more sugar because you're body always craves it than going outside to play because you are full and satisfied?

    I also was on the recieving end of snack-strict parents, and it took me many years to develop a healthy relationship with food. Could my parents have gone about it differently? Absolutely. But am I going to let my kids eat a ton of processed foods and chemicals so that they are free of responsibilty for what they put into their bodies? No. As a country, we need to learn to eat to live, not live to eat. Children should absolutely have fun, loving, supportive environment to grow up in, one that isn't centered around what they eat. If we make our relationship with food a simple, natural one, about eating when we're hungry and putting healthy, natural foods into our bodies instead of eating junk food when our minds and not our stomaches crave fat or sugar, we (adults and children) can focus the rest of our energy on actually living our lives.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Kate

    You're all correct – to a degree. Healthy snacks are very easy to prepare and we should encourage our children to eat them as much as we possibly can. As parents it is our job to know what our children are eating and teach them how to make good choices....so that when they are presented with an array of items to choose from, they will hopefully choose what's best for them.

    I will not deny that there are a lot of holier-than-thou parents out there who look down their noses at those of us who don't have a problem with a few chocolate chips going down the gullet. However, they do have the right to parent their own children and help them make sensible choices. With small children, more control is necessary, but there also has to be a lesson taught about WHY we should choose some foods over others.

    That said, I am the sister of a juvenile diabetic and mother of an ADHD son. Please be careful about how you judge the behavior of other mothers. I recall several occasions where I witnessed my mother literally snatch food out of my sister's hand when she was young. It could have been a matter of life and death. For my son, there are foods that are completely off-limits to him because of his sensitivity to caffeine and certain food dyes. I joke with other mothers that if they give him candy or soda, they get to keep him for the rest of the day! But they know and understand. If he attended a party where there were snacks that could impact his well-being, I would politely ask that he be served an alternative and explain why....and I would always have back up in my purse! And then there were times when I would just let it go and let him have the cupcake and deal with the consequences later. That was NEVER an alternative for my mother. Fortunately, she regularly reached out to the other parents and the teachers and classmates' parents, all of whom bent over backward to provide support. My sister always knew she was different, but she never felt left out.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Sylvee

    Wow, It's really not that complicated. We need to teach and guide our children with healthy snacks and healthy choices and also allow for room for choices that are may be considered slightly unhealthier, why? because it is OK sometimes, in moderation, to have a chocolate chip cookie or a bag of chips even a soda with your pizza. As long as children are healthy and active, everything in moderation is not going to harm them. If they crave chips, offer yogurt with it to dip it in, or a chocolate chip cookie with a glass of milk, life is full of compromises the sooner they learn to balance their life and choices the better for them in the long run. If after a soccer game, the snacks are not cut up apples and oranges but chips, crackers, or muffins even donuts, so be it, it is one snack out of their enitre life. If one day they decide to run a marathon or triathalon, they will eat what they need to eat, trust me. Besides children learn from example, if you have a healthy lifestyle, so shall they despite the random less than healthy snack choice that may come up now and again. Lighten up, life is too short to worry about the small stuff...

    March 5, 2010 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Eve

    Jenni, Amanda, Sophie:

    Bravo! More parents should share your philosophy when it comes to kids diets. It's just a shame that parents like Maria just want to coddle their children with foods that have no nutritional substance whatsoever. Like Sophie mentioned, we do need to make our kids responsible for thier eating habits and teach them about the health benefits of good foods. It angers me that this country seems to be far behind others (i.e, Europe) when it comes to healthy eating. It's no wonder so many American adults and children are grossly obese!

    March 5, 2010 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Maria H-Miami

    Sophie, my argument is not as you said “an entirely hyperbolic argument”, you are the very point that I am making. How healthy is it for an adult to spend many years developing a healthy relationship with food as you have because as you wrote you were “on the receiving end of snack-strict parents”?

    You are the very reason I believe all parents need to seek the guidance of their Pediatrician, Doctor, professional Nutritionist before starting kids on a strict diet so as to avoid psychological, emotional, physical problems on kids that will carry into adulthood, with the guidance of the doctor parents can learn self control and cooking tips, have a specific diet planned according to each child’s health needs, keeps parents from stressing kids out and everyone else they come in contact with. Doctors need to keep a close eye on kids physical and emotional well being.

    I believe in healthy snacks but I don’t believe occasionally eating a hot dog, pizza, cheeseburger, ice cream, french fries, chocolate,etc.. would compromise a child’s nutritional health, it wouldn’t cause permanent damage. There has to be a balance between healthy eating and emotional stress for the kids. Children need to be taught moderation, self control in eating all kinds of foods, aside from healthy foods, hopefully it will carry over when they find themselves alone in college or living alone. Self control, moderation all come in handy also when they reach the age of drinking and get tempted with drugs.

    March 6, 2010 at 00:05 | Report abuse | Reply
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