Children’s meal patterns - including when and where they eat - changed substantially between the 1970s and 1990s, according to a study of Louisiana schoolchildren.
In surveys of nearly 1,600 children conducted over two decades, researchers found that 10-year-olds in 1994 were eating fewer home-cooked dinners and eating out more often than 10-year-olds were 20 years earlier. On the other hand, they were snacking less and eating less often during the day.
The importance of these various changes is not yet clear, the study’s lead author, Dr. Theresa A. Nicklas of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told Reuters Health.
Many of the shifts in meal patterns, according to Nicklas, could be seen in either a positive or negative light. As an example, she pointed to the fact that children in 1993-94 reported eating less often. Studies of adults have shown that frequent, small meals may help lower cholesterol and better manage diabetes; evidence is lacking, however, that this meal pattern prevents obesity.
And, in fact, Nicklas and her colleagues found no relationship between children’s meal patterns and their risk of being overweight. The findings are published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
However, Nicklas stressed, that doesn’t mean meal patterns - how often people eat, where they eat, the times of day they eat - have no effect on children’s weight.
Instead, she said, it may be that certain combinations of eating patterns promote excess weight. For example, children who eat a lot of fast food and sweets, and eat less often over the course of a day, may face a greater risk of becoming overweight.
The study findings are based on responses from fifth-graders who participated in seven surveys taken between 1973 and 1994. The children were asked about their eating patterns over the preceding 24 hours.
During the 1970s, the percentage of children who said they’d skipped breakfast jumped from about 8 percent in the first survey to nearly 30 percent in 1978. After school breakfast was introduced in 1981, this percentage declined and remained low into the 1990s.
Fewer children in the 1990s were eating school lunch, however, and the percentage of children who said they brought their lunch from home increased from just 1 percent in 1973-74 to 11 percent 20 years later.
At the same time, the percentage of children who said they ate dinner at home the night before dropped from 89 percent to 76 percent. And in 1993-94, more than 5 percent of children said they’d had one of their meals at a restaurant, compared with 0.3 percent in 1973-74.
But children in the 1990s ate fewer snacks than their 1970s counterparts did. They also ate over a shorter window of time - having their last meal of the day earlier in the evening, for example.
That none of these meal patterns could be tied to the risk of excess weight is “disappointing,” according to the study authors. Nicklas said more studies are needed to understand how meal patterns affect children’s weight.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, May 2004.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD