Less focus on plate size and more on reducing quantity and variety of food key to getting children to snack less
A new study has found that offering children a wide variety and large quantities of snack food
encourages them to eat more – and this practice may be contributing to Australia’s weight problem.
The research*, led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and published in the latest
International Journal of Obesity, also found that how snacks are presented (in a large or small
container) has little influence on how much children snack.
Lead researcher Dr Jessica Kerr said their study found children weren’t greatly affected by container
size, with food consumption mainly driven by the quantity/variety of snacks on offer.
“There has been a popular push by nutritionists and public health officials towards replacing large
dishware with smaller versions to nudge people towards healthier decisions,” she said. “But we have
found dishware size has very little effect on the amount of food consumed.”
Dr Kerr said while the overconsumption of snack foods is an important contributor to obesity, most people
do not recognise the impact it has on their calorie intake.
“Children and adults should only consume energy-dense snacks occasionally – they do not need to be
part of daily energy intake,” she said. “But the reality is that Australians typically get around 30-40 per
cent of their energy intake from snack foods.”
Dr Kerr said three times as many children in Australia are now overweight or obese compared to 30 years
“About 20 per cent (1 in 5) of children are overweight or obese,” she said. “There are many complications
of children being overweight such as type 2 diabetes, orthopaedic and respiratory disorders, liver
problems and sleep apnoea.”
Dr Kerr said until now studies into snacking behavior were limited by self-reported data or small sample
“Past dietary studies have mostly focused on main meals,” Dr Kerr said. “It is important to determine on
a larger scale how dishware size and the quantity, variety, and energy density of snacks affect both child
and adult snacking behavior when apart from each other outside of the family environment,” she said.
For the study, participants ate during a 15-minute snack break between 20 other health assessments at
the Child Health CheckPoint, which looked at the health of 1800 children, aged 11-12 years, and their
parents across a variety of factors from physical activity to sleep.
The children and parents were given a snack box containing non-perishable items such as crackers,
cheese, a muesli bar, biscuits, a tub of peaches and chocolate.
The quantity/number and variety of snack food items and the container sizes that the food was presented
in varied. Children and parents ate separately and at different times.
Researchers recorded how much food each child and parent left in the box uneaten, and calculated the
total grams and kilojoules consumed.
“Children who were offered more snack items consumed considerably more energy and a slightly higher
food mass. Manipulating box/container size had little effect on consumption,” she said.
The impact on adults was little, however Dr Kerr said adults were more aware that they were being
observed and this may have impacted their eating behaviour.
Dr Kerr said further research should be done with parents and community leaders to better understand
the use and purpose of snack food items in the face of time pressures, marketing, and child preferences.
“Although there is sometimes a place for snack items to bridge the gap between main meals, our results
reinforce calls to educate parents and schools about appropriate snack items and amounts of food to
offer children,” she said.
“Our research indicates that more attention and resources should be directed to toward offering children
smaller amounts of food and, specifically, fewer and less variety of energy-dense foods and pre-packaged
items. Interventions should not solely invest in reducing dishware size in the expectation that this will lead
to reduced intake of snack foods.”
Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Erasmus University Rotterdam, University of South
Australia, Monash University, Deakin University, University of Sydney and the University of Auckland
also contributed to the findings.
*Publication: Jessica A Kerr, Pauline W Jansen, Fiona K Mensah, Kay Gibbons, Tim S Olds, John B
Carlin, Susan A Clifford, David Burgner, Lisa Gold, Louise A Baur and Melissa Wake. ‘Child and adult
snack food intake in response to manipulated pre-packaged snack item quantity/ variety and snack box
size: a population-based randomized trial.’ International Journal of Obesity.