TUESDAY, May 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The nutritional quality of children's snacks declines as they get older, a new study finds.
The researchers found that for younger children, each snack they ate improved their overall diet quality score. But for older children, each snack lowered their overall diet quality score.
"Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality," they wrote. "In adolescents, however, our results suggested that snacks detract from overall diet quality while each additional meal increased diet quality."
The researchers suspect that younger children are generally eating the snacks provided to them by their parents, which may be why their snack quality was higher. Teens, on the other hand, may be making more of their own choices, and some of those choices may be less nutritious.
But, snacking isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to the study's lead author.
"Snacks don't have to be vilified. Snacks can be beneficial to children's diets when made up of the right foods. But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children," study first author E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University and the Weight Control and Diabetes Center at The Miriam Hospital, said in a Brown news release.
The average American child snacks three times a day. When choosing snacks for children, select those that have high levels of nutrients rather than calories, suggested Evans, who conducted the research while at Tufts University.
The study included low-income children, aged 9 to 15, from four Boston-area schools. Ninety-two of the children were between the ages of 9 and 11, while 84 were between the ages of 12 and 15. On two separate occasions, the children and teens provided information about what they ate in the previous 24 hours.
Overall, each snack provided about half as much to total daily calorie intake as each meal, which shows that snacks are an important part of children's and teens' overall diets, according to the authors of the study published online recently in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Along with highlighting the need for good snacking habits, the study also showed the importance of meals in improving the overall quality of youngsters' diets. In both groups of youngsters, each full meal boosted their dietary score.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about child nutrition.