The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend that children eat nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day to meet their nutritional needs. But are teens snacking in ways that lead to better health—or unwanted weight?

A new study led by College of Public Health researchers and published in Nutrients has found that adolescents with normal weight had fewer snacks daily and smaller snacks per occasion (i.e., fewer calories per snack) than teens classified as overweight or obese. 

Other findings from the study include that teens with overweight and obesity were consuming more added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium from snacks compared to normal weight teens; boys are consuming more snacks per day compared to girls; and African American teens are consuming more frequent and more energy dense snacks compared to their white peers.

“There is an extensive literature that looks at how high-fat, high-sugar foods are disproportionately marketed to racial and ethnic minority kids, especially teens,” says lead author Gina Tripicchio, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and researcher in the Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE). “What we show here is that they're also disproportionately consuming these foods as snacks.”

Overall, the data suggests that targeting snacking frequency and size is a potential way to reduce teen obesity and obesity-related diseases.

“Despite how common snacking has become, there's really not a lot of literature that uses rigorous methodology to look at snacking,” says Tripicchio. “We know adolescents have more autonomy than younger children, and they’re establishing eating behaviors that can impact life-long health. We wanted to look at snacking as a potentially important eating behavior and its association with weight status.”

To conduct this study, Tripicchio and her team, including Dr. Jennifer Fisher, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and associate director of CORE, dug into 11 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES). NHANES is a nationally representative survey collected annually in the United States, gathering a range of health information, including dietary intake and demographic data from about 5,000 people of all ages across the country. Tripicchio’s group examined information from adolescents ages 12 to 19, including demographic information, height and weight, and self-reported snacking behavior.

Most importantly, says Tripicchio, the study used multiple definitions of snacking in order to better describe the relationship between snacking and weight status. “Snacking” for this study included food and beverages consumed between meals, as well as extended consumption occasions where “you open a bag of chips, and you're eating it over the course of a few hours,” she explains.

Tripicchio says she hopes these results will spur further study and perhaps eventually a new look at official guidelines. As a next step, she and her team will be investigating the impact of snacking on diet quality and how snack patterns contribute to meeting or exceeding the DGA.