According to a new study released today in the journal Health Affairs, kids in the US now get more than a quarter of their daily calories (27 percent) from junk food, snacking on salty and sugary treats three times a day -- in addition to their regular meals.
Dessert consumption was down, but only because kids seem to be eating those cakes and candies between meals instead of after them.
The nearly continuous eating gives kids an extra 168 calories a day -- most of which are so-called "empty calories" with little to no nutrional value -- is locking kids into unhealthy eating habits that are hard to break, the study found. It's also contributing to the country's already serious childhood obesity problem, and the rising obesity rate has other consequences as well: Overweight or obese children are 59 percent more likely to miss more than two weeks of school than kids who are not overweight, and 32 percent more likely to have to repeat a grade, another study shows.
"Our study shows that some children, including very young children, snack almost continuously throughout the day," said Barry M. Popkin, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lead author of the paper.
The study focused on data from more than 31,300 U.S. children from 1977 to 2006. From 1977 to 1978, 74 percent of children ages 2 to 18 said they snacked outside of regular meals, according to the study, but from 2003 to 2006, that number had skyrocketed to 98 percent -- and most of the kids reported that their go-to munchie was salty chips or crackers or sugary candy.
I thought the age group with the largest snacking increase would be teenagers -- they eat pretty much everything that isn't nailed down, right? Wrong. Young kids, age 2 to 6, were the ones who consumed the most calories via snacks, the study found.
On Monday, First Lady Michelle Obama -- who is leading a White House-backed initiative to end childhood obesity -- told the School Nutrition Association that parents, educators and policymakers share responsibility for the trend.
"Our kids didn't do this to themselves," Obama said. "From fast food, to vending machines packed with chips and candy, to a la carte lines, we tempt our kids with all kinds of unhealthy choices every day."
I agree that the problem is complex, but the 2 to 6 year olds in the study aren't buying their snacks at vending machines, they're not pouring their own soda or juice instead of water or milk, and they're not driving themselves to McDonald's. So how to explain the fact that they're getting 27 percent of their daily caloric intake in the form of junk food?
My 5- and 3-year-olds say that their favorite snacks are carrots, granola bars and apples, but the truth is that they would happily chow down on chips, cheese puffs, marshmallows and sugar cookies if they thought those were actually options. Which, I'll be honest, they sometimes are -- a recent road trip saw plenty of decidedly unwholesome eating, and there's a Costco-size container of jelly beans on my kitchen counter right now, left over from Valentine's Day, of which I've had more than my fair share. (Let's face it: As parents, we don't always make the healthiest choices for ourselves, either.)
I guess it comes down to this: Kids can't make healthy choices for themselves until parents make those healthy choices first.
What's your child's favorite snack? Do you eat as healthily as they do?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com.