By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Children who eat between meals may be getting fruits and other elements of a healthy diet that they would not otherwise eat, a small study of kids’ diet quality suggests.

Researchers examined data on eating habits among 150 families in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, with children 5 to 7 years old. The study team surveyed participants on three separate occasions about what they ate and drank over the previous 24 hours.

When researchers only looked at meals kids ate, children had an average so-called Healthy Eating Index (HEI) score of 55.3 out of a possible 100 points for an optimal diet, the study found. But when researchers also looked at snacks, kids’ average scores rose to 57.1.

“Among the children included in the current study, snacking was found to contribute positively to overall diet quality,” lead study author Katie Loth of the University of Minnesota and colleagues write in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“However, snacking was also found to contribute to children’s mean consumption of refined grains and sugar sweetened beverages,” Loth and colleagues write.

With only meals counted, children averaged 3.9 servings of refined grains like white bread and 0.4 servings of sugary beverages like sodas and fruit drinks, the study found.

Including snacks, kids got 5 daily servings of refined grains and 0.54 daily servings of sugary drinks.

Children in the study got an average of 1,215 calories a day from meals alone, and an average of 1,581 daily calories when researchers looked at both meals and snacks.

Including snacks, children got an average of 1.08 servings of fruit, 1.29 servings of vegetables, 4.26 servings of protein, and 2.15 servings of dairy each day, the study found.

Counting only meals, they averaged barely two-thirds of a serving of fruit daily, 3.88 servings of protein, and 0.59 servings of vegetables, suggesting that snacks can help kids get more of the healthy foods they need, the study team writes.

Snacking appeared to make a bigger difference in overall diet quality for boys than for girls. Excluding snacks from diet analysis contributed to a 2.5-point drop in diet quality scores for boys but just a 1-point dip for girls.

The impact of snacking on diet quality also appeared to vary for different racial and ethnic groups.

Diet scores with and without snacks were similar for African-American children, at about 49, the study found. Average diet scores rose from 59.1 with meals only to 61.1 including snacks for Hispanic kids; from 53.4 to 54.7 for Hmong children; from 53.4 to 56 for Native American kids; from 60.2 to 62.7 for Somali youth; and from 56.7 to 58.6 for white children.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how snacking might directly improve diet quality or health outcomes for children.

Beyond its small size, another limitation of the study is the potential for parents to provide inaccurate or incomplete information about kids’ eating habits in dietary surveys, the study team notes. It’s also possible results would be different elsewhere, or for other racial or ethnic groups.

“Future research should seek to better understand influences on children’s food choices at snack times and barriers to serving more healthful foods as snacks that are faced by ethnically or racially diverse families,” the study team concludes.

“Long term, the development of interventions that aim to improve children’s consumption of healthful foods at snack times should be pursued,” the researchers add.

SOURCE: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online November 25, 2019.