08 May 2012

What drives kids' snack choices

Attitudes, relationships, intentions and personal behaviour control are all factors that could affect a child's decision in either reaching for an apple or grabbing a bag of chips.


Attitudes, relationships, intentions and personal behaviour control are all factors that could affect a child's decision in either reaching for an apple or grabbing a bag of chips, according to a new study out of the University of Cincinnati.

The research by Paul Branscum, assistant professor of health and exercise science at the University of Oklahoma, and Manoj Sharma, a University of Cincinnati professor of health promotion and education, is published in the International Quarterly of Community Health Education.

How the study was done

The study focused on 167 fourth-and-fifth-grade elementary schoolchildren in the Midwest over a 24-hour reporting period. The authors found that snacking represented a large part of the children's daily kilojoule intake.

Overall, the group reported consuming an average of approximately 1260 kilojoules  from high-kilojoule, low-nutrition foods such as chips, candy and cookies – nearly 17% of their daily kilojoule needs. They reported eating only 189 kilojoules from fruits and vegetables combined.

Students were asked to report all snack foods and drinks that they had eaten in a 24-hour period. The information was then entered into the USDA National Nutrient Database to calculate the consumption of high-kilojoule snacks as well as calories from fruits and vegetables.

The survey examined a number of behaviours in relation to snacking, such as whether the children thought that choosing lower-kilojoule snacks was a good idea, whether they were confident in knowing how to choose lower kilojoule snacks, and if they felt any social pressure from parents, teachers or friends in choosing lower kilojoule snack foods.

Children’s snack differ according to gender

The study found that intentions (stemming from attitude, social connections and behavioural control) predicted the children's direction toward healthy or unhealthy snacking.

The study found some significant differences in snack choices among gender and ethnicity. Girls reported eating more high-kilojoule snacks (1462 kilojoules) than boys (1004 kilojoules).

African-American children reported consuming the least high-kilojoule snacks (932 kilojoules), compared with Hispanic children 1247 kilojoules), white children (1184 kilojoules) and Asian children (1176 kilojoules). The Hispanic and Asian children also reported consuming more of the healthier fruit and vegetable snacks than the white and African-American children.

Out of the 167-person study group, 59% were female, 41% were male, 48% were Caucasian, 16% were African-American, 19% were Hispanic, three percent identified as Asian and 13% identified as other (multiple race or ethnicity).

Children are in control over choice of snacks  

The report suggests that part of the increases in childhood snacking could be stemming from the growing numbers of children who skip breakfast.

Children are also more likely to have greater control over choosing their snacks (and making bad choices), versus what is served at dinner. Higher kilojoule snacks such as chips and cookies are less filling – making it easier to over consume them – compared with higher-fibre fruits and vegetables.

The study suggested that in the battle against childhood obesity, snack foods should be of particular concern because they're relatively cheap and easy for children to purchase.

The researchers say the results of the survey further support the need for more health education programme for elementary school children in fighting childhood obesity, in an effort to help children make more positive health choices such as selecting healthier snacks.

"Children may not comprehend long-term benefits or consequences of obesity, such as developing chronic conditions in adulthood, but it's likely that they would understand immediate benefits of a healthier lifestyle, such as being better able to play team or individual sports," Branscum says.

The authors add that targeting obesity in children is especially important to head off future health threats such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as future skyrocketing costs in healthcare as a result of the growing rate of obesity.

(EurekAlert, May 2012)

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