Little kids are notorious junk food eaters. It’s only once people mature that they realize how dangerous a sweet tooth can be — or so we tend to think. A new study tells the opposite story: As kids get older, the quality of their snacking actually tends toward the unhealthy.

Developing healthy eating habits at a young age has grown in importance as the national childhood obesity rates continue to climb. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the last 30 years. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

Studying Snacking

The latest study began as a potential way to gain information that could reduce, or even reverse, these trends. Brown University scientists set out to investigate kids’ snacking frequency in relation to their overall energy intake from food. But what they found in conducting their research was an intriguing pattern related to age: Older kids routinely ate calorically dense, but nutritionally poor snacks.

"Unexpectedly, in elementary school-age participants we found that overall eating frequency and snacks positively contributed to diet quality," wrote lead author and Brown postdoctoral fellow E. Whitney Evans, along with her colleagues from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Meanwhile, the diet quality of adolescents decayed with each additional snack consumed.

Evans and her team used the Healthy Eating Index, 2005 developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess overall diet quality. Among 92 children between the ages of 9 and 11, they found snacking increased diet quality by 2.31 points and meals by 3.84 points. Meanwhile, subjects between 12 and 15 saw a quality reduction of 2.73 points for each snack consumed; yet on a brighter note, each meal upped their quality by 5.40 points.

Ultimately, each snack added half the energy intake as each meal, Evans said, making them “high-stakes eating moments.” But those stakes can swing in either direction: either toward healthy or unhealthy eating. Snacks aren’t always the bad guy, Evans points out. Smaller meals, eaten more frequently, can accelerate a person’s metabolism and ultimately reduce the risk for obesity.

"Snacks can be beneficial to children's diets when made up of the right foods,” she said. “But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children."

Fixing the Problem

Basically, snacks fill us up and leave less room for more important nutrients. And if habits are instilled early enough, Evan argues, children are prone to engrain them for life. Added to that is the fact most young children in the study were getting healthier snacks because their parents had control over their diets, compared to the teenagers who mostly ate what they wanted. Evans envisions three potential strategies to combat this.

One is to encourage healthy eating habits at a young age. Prepare fruits and vegetables in appetizing ways, and present them as desirable from the start. The sooner a child develops an aversion to a certain food, the less likely he or she is to give other foods of a similar ilk a chance. Education is also helpful. "It's important to help adolescents understand the implications of snacking,” Evans said. ”For example, snacks that could occur as mindless eating in front of the television may be the ones that increase their weight over time."

In the long run, a holistic approach will be the most likely to succeed. Families that portray food as a source of nutrition and energy, not simply taste and convenience, and who offer that food in a structured environment, give their kids the best shot to stay healthy for life.

"Meals, especially family meals, really have a great potential for increasing the diet quality of adolescents,” Evans said.

Source: Evans E, Jacques P, Dallal G, Sacheck J, Must A. The role of eating frequency on total energy intake and diet quality in a low-income, racially diverse sample of schoolchildren. Public Health Nutrition. 2014.