Factors Contributing to Obesity: Snacking
Both frequency of snacking and the amount of snacks consumed in the U.S. have risen over the past several decades. Between the mid-1970s and 2003 through 2006, the average time between meals or snacks shrank by one hour for both adults and children — three hours apart for adults and 3.5 hours for children — while the amount of calories consumed from snacks rose more than the caloric intake increase at meals.
The average adult consumed 470 calories from snacks each day in 2003 through 2006, up from 200 calories in the mid-1970s. The number of calories the average child consumes in the form of snacks also rose during this period, from 240 calories in the mid-1970s to 500 calories in 2003-2006.31 Contributing to this caloric increase are larger portion sizes of ready-to-eat foods, which began growing in the 1970s and now exceed federal standards for serving size. In addition, the types of foods consumed during snack time have shifted away from healthier options, such as fruit, and toward chips, candy and sugary beverages.32
Each additional daily serving of a sweetened drink increases a child’s risk of obesity by an average of 60 percent
By the mid-1990s, children were consuming more sugar-sweetened beverages than milk. One study found that these beverages contributed 290 calories daily to an average adult diet in the 1970s versus 420 calories in 2003-2006, an increase of 45 percent. Again, portion sizes for these drinks have grown considerably.
The types of foods consumed during snack time have shifted away from healthier options, such as fruit, and toward chips, candy and sugary beverages
Each additional daily serving of a sweetened drink increases a child’s risk for obesity by an average of 60 percent.33
Several factors fuel the trend toward unhealthy snacking. One is the wide availability of snacks at school. Vending machines at many elementary, junior high and high schools provide fatty, salty and sugary snacks. Middle school and high school students have especially easy access to them.34 Children also purchase unhealthy snacks at corner stores before or after school.35
Marketing and advertising also play a role. A recent study examined television marketing of children’s food, using the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ classification system that groups foods into “go,” “slow” and “whoa” categories. The study found that 72.5 percent of the ads for children marketed foods in the “whoa” group, which should be consumed only on rare occasions. Just 1 percent of all children’s food commercials fit into the “go” category, which includes foods such as fruits and vegetables.36
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- 31 Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Snack Nation,” Nutrition Action Health Letter (May 1, 2010), . (Last visited January 13, 2011.)
- 32 Carmen Piernas and Barry M. Popkin, “Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children,” Health Affairs (March 2010), pp. 398-400; and Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, “The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health (February 2002), pp. 246-247, . (Last visited January 13, 2011.)
- 33 Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Snack Nation,” ; Kelly D. Brownell and Thomas R. Frieden, “Ounces of Prevention: The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages,” New England Journal of Medicine (April 30, 2009), pp. 1805-1806; and California Center for Public Health Advocacy, “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages: Extra Sugar, Extra Calories and Extra Weight,” . (Last visited January 13, 2011.)
- 34 U.S. Government Accountability Office, School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods are Widely Available and Generate Substantial Revenues for Schools (Washington, D.C., August 2005), pp. 14-18, . (Last visited January 13, 2011.)
- 35 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Study Shows a Little Money Buys a Lot of Calories at City Corner Stores,” (Last visited January 13, 2011.)
- 36 Children Now, The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertized on Television to Children by Dale Kunkel, Christopher McKinley and Paul Wright (Oakland, California, December 2009), pp. 6-7, (Last visited January 14, 2011.)