RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Apparently, it’s not just adults who enjoy midnight snacks. A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity finds that young children who are overweight or obese consume more of their calories later in the day than healthier-weight kids their age, usually peaking at 7 p.m.
THE DETAILS: The authors collected data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ongoing National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey. They looked at nutritional records for 11,072 children between the ages of 2 and 18, and the group was evenly split between boys and girls. Overall, the proportion of obese and overweight children increased with age, and for a large majority of the kids, there was a connection between likelihood of obesity and the time of day when the child consumed the most calories. Normal-weight kids between ages 6 and 11 consumed about 45 percent of their daily calories between 4 p.m. and midnight, whereas overweight and obese kids consumed upwards of 49 percent. That 4 to 5 percent difference might seem small, but it could translate to almost 90 extra calories a day, taken in when the kids are less likely to burn them off by being active. Among teenagers, researchers saw no significant difference in the percentage of late-day calories consumed by obese and nonobese kids.
WHAT IT MEANS: Kids, like adults, can succumb to “night eating syndrome,” a habit of consuming 25 percent or more of the day’s calories after dinner. Why younger children seem more prone to late-night binges than teenagers remains unclear, says lead author Sibylle Kranz, PhD, RD, associate professor in the department of nutrition and dietetics at East Carolina University and adjunct associate professor in the department of surgery at Brody School of Medicine. Part of the problem may be that younger kids have fewer chances to fill their tanks during school hours. “In school, access to food is restricted during the day [for young children],” Kranz says. “Teenagers have longer lunch breaks and can satisfy their energy needs earlier in the day. Younger kids may only eat half a sandwich for lunch because they only have 25 minutes to eat.” By the time they get home at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon and start to unwind, they’re hungry. Plus, they may spend the rest of the day on the couch, burning few calories and eating while they’re distracted, watching television, or playing on the computer. “Or, they may just be eating out of boredom,” she notes.
Here are a few ways to establish healthy eating habits for your kids: