Little girl snacks on cotton candy (Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Little girl snacks on cotton candy (Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Attitudes, relationships, intentions and personal behavior control are all factors which influence whether children reach for junk food rather than opting for healthy snacks, such as fruit and vegetables.

A University of Cincinnati study finds intentions are a major factor behind a child’s snack choices. This is driven by several variables, such as the child’s attitude toward eating healthy or unhealthy foods, as well as the social or peer pressure the child feels.

While we all love to snack from time to time, we don’t always go for the healthier choice, opting instead for junk food, which is  high in calories but low in nutritional value.

Children are no different when it comes to snacking, but as awareness of childhood obesity continues to rise, researchers and public health officials are increasing their scrutiny of children’s eating habits, including what they choose to eat as snacks.  Zeroing in on the problem of obesity in children is an important public health concern and could help prevent future health threats such as diabetes and heart disease.

The study points to the strong influence of parents, teachers and other adults kids know and trust.  If a parent or teacher has good snacking or eating habits, this can influence what the child eats well, too.

The amount of control children feel they have over snacking is another factor influencing snack choice; in other words, if they are given the freedom to choose their own snacks rather than having them already selected for them.

Published in the International Quarterly of Community Health Education, the study looked at the eating and snacking behaviors of 167 fourth- and fifth-grade elementary schoolchildren in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area over a 24-hour period.

The study did find that snacking was a major part of the children’s caloric intake, about 300 calories a day from foods like chips, candy and cookies.  These so-called high-calorie, low-nutrition foods made up around 17 percent of the kids’ daily caloric needs.  Only 45 calories of the study group’s daily intake came from healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables.

Healthy choice - boy eating an apple (Photo: AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt)

Healthy choice - boy eating an apple (Photo: AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt)

Researchers also examined whether children thought selecting lower-calorie snacks over the high-calorie versions was a good idea; how confident there were in knowing how to pick the lower-calorie snack foods; and whether they were influenced or felt pressure from their parents, teachers or friends in picking the lower-calorie snacks.

The demographics of the children in the study group were varied and included a mix of boys and girls, Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

There are also differences in snack choices along the lines of gender and ethnicity.  Girls in the study tended to eat more of the high-calorie snacks, taking in an average of 348.3 calories a day, while boys consumed around 238.8 calories each day.

African-American children ate the smallest amount of high-calorie snacks, at 221.6 calories a day. Hispanic children consumed 297.6 snack calories daily, followed by Caucasian children who ate 282.3 calories a day. Asian-American children who took in about 280.8 calories a day.

Among the ethnic groups measured, the study also finds that both Hispanic and Asian-American children consume more of the healthier snacks, such as fruit and vegetables, than both Caucasian and African-American children.

The study’s authors say their research suggests more care and concern should be given to what foods children choose for their snacks, because they’re relatively cheap and easy for children to buy.

You can listen to what Dr. Paul Branscum, one of the study’s authors, says about the study, what it revealed and how important it is to the future health of our children to pay attention to their choices of snack foods and encourage healthier eating habits.

[audio://|titles=One On One – Dr. Paul Branscam – Children’s Snack Choices]