Healthful snacks for kids and toddlers are essential to prevent childhood obesity, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Healthy low calorie snack bars are an important tool for children and teens, with more than 80 percent of children and toddlers eating snacks at least once a week, according the study.
The research also found that healthy snacks for younger children and teenagers are the most popular food of choice, with 90 percent of kids and teens eating them at least twice a week.
The most popular snack for older children and adolescents is a snack bar, followed by fruit and vegetable snacks.
The study, led by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, looked at the eating habits of nearly 2,000 preschool-age children and their mothers from across the country.
Researchers found that children who ate healthier snacks at home ate more calories, were less likely to eat sugar-sweetened snacks, and had fewer processed snacks.
“Our findings suggest that snacks for preschoolers and toddlers can reduce the risk of obesity and chronic diseases by increasing physical activity and increasing nutrient intake,” said Dr. Jana K. Gebhardt, one of the study’s authors and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Gebhardt and her colleagues examined the diets of 1,800 preschool-aged children and mothers over a period of about three years, including visits to preschool, during which the mothers worked in a variety of jobs.
Researchers also collected food and beverage data for all children and moms at their home, including diet and activity data.
“We looked at whether the food choices and behaviors of preschoolers affected their weight and their risk of childhood obesity,” said Gebhart.
“Overall, we found that the eating patterns of preschool children and older children were associated with increased risk of overweight and obesity.
The overall association was particularly strong among preschool children, and stronger among those who had not been on a diet.”
Researchers found a similar association between snacks for older kids and obesity risk, suggesting that eating more healthy snacks could be an important way to prevent obesity.
“There is a growing body of evidence that suggests a snack diet is an important strategy for improving nutrition and promoting weight management among children and youth,” Gebhard said.
“We found that this diet can be used to promote weight loss among children who have been on diets and who were not on a healthy weight-loss program.”
The study found that kids who ate healthy snacks at school had lower rates of childhood weight gain and obesity, as well as lower rates for childhood diabetes and chronic disease.
The researchers noted that the study focused on preschool children who were participating in a nutrition program, but there may be health benefits to eating healthier snacks in schools as well.
“I think this work suggests that healthy snack choices may be an effective strategy to promote healthy eating habits among children,” Gefhardt said.
The Harvard School for Public Health, along with Brigham and Menischewitz Children’s Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Engineering, are the authors of the new study.