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Do Kids Need to Snack? What the French Know That We Don't

Americans try to prevent hunger. The French cultivate it.
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A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that Type 2 diabetes progresses faster in kids than in adults. What's worse, though, is that when kids get Type 2 diabetes, it's harder to treat. What to do?

In an editorial this past Sunday, the New York Times calls for more health care programs. More health care programs.

Are they nuts?

I'm all for health care programs, but it's going to take a lot more than that to fight obesity and to keep our kids from suffering the devastating effects of diabetes, which can include heart disease, stroke, blindness, amputations and kidney failure.

We need more than programs. We need a cultural shift in how we think about feeding our kids.

For instance, let's talk about snacking. It's widely accepted by parents and their doctors that children need to snack. But do they?

According to Karen Le Billon, author of the new book French Kids Eat Everything, French kids don't snack as regularly as American kids do. Indeed, Le Billon reports that French kids, even very young ones, snack only once a day -- in the late afternoon.

It's not that French children have special French metabolisms that allow them to go more than two hours without eating, or to get through social gatherings without food. The French have a different cultural idea about food, eating and, most importantly, about hunger.

Le Billon writes:

If asked, many American parents would prefer to give something unhealthy to their kids rather than make them wait. If French children are hungry, on the other hand, they are simply promised that they'll be able to eat well at the next meal. (p. 147)

Americans try to prevent hunger. The French cultivate it.

From the French perspective, Le Billon reports, hunger between meals is a good thing. It produces good eaters, teaches kids self-control and produces discipline around eating.

Alternatively, as a sociologist who coaches parents on teaching their children to eat right, I can safely say that American parents go to great lengths to make sure their kids are never hungry.

American kids snack and snack and snack. And the more kids snack, the worse they eat. An important study by Carmen Piernas and Barry M. Popkin at the University of North Carolina shows that:

  • Children average nearly three snacks per day.
  • 27 percent of their daily calories come from snacks.
  • Today's children typically take in 168 more calories from snacks than they did in 1977. (Does that mean kids are hungrier -- 168 calories hungrier -- at snack time than they used to be?)
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, kids don't compensate for snacking by eating smaller meals. Kids two to six years old have added 182 calories per day to their diet since 1977, with no corresponding increase in physical activity.
  • Most snack calories come from desserts and sweetened beverages, but salty snacks -- i.e. potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels -- and candy are the fastest growing category of snack consumption.

What are we teaching our kids? Piernas and Popkin wonder this too. They ask: "Is the physiological basis for eating becoming disregulated, as our children are moving towards constant eating?"

I know that some people claim the healthiest way to eat is to eat often. But the jury is still out on this. There's plenty of research that shows that eating frequently throughout the day reduces your chances of becoming overweight. Unfortunately, there's also plenty of research that counters this, too.

And while the USDA continues to recommend two meals a day for preschoolers (see their suggested snack patterns) the American Academy of Pediatrics simply advises parents to "limit snacking during sedentary behavior or in response to boredom and particularly restrict use of sweet/sweetened beverages as snacks (e.g., juice, soda, sports drinks)."

So by all means let's declare a national emergency for childhood obesity. But let's not answer the call with just more health care programs.

Let's change the way we teach our children how to eat.

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