Compared to toddlers who crave salty foods, little ones who mindlessly snack on cookies and cake may be more likely to wind up overweight, a U.S. study suggests.
To study what's known as eating in the absence of hunger, researchers tracked how many sweet and salty snacks children ate just after finishing a full meal.
Children who ate the most sweets after the meal and threw the biggest tantrums when the treats were taken away had greater odds of gaining excess weight than kids who grazed on salty foods or didn't put up a fuss when their snack was removed, the study found.
Biology may be to blame because none of the differences in family or household characteristics explained why only some children craved sugar, said senior study author Dr. Julie Lumeng, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"This behavior is probably inborn," Lumeng said by email.
"Our study suggests that those kids who particularly like sweets are at greater risk of weight gain," Lumeng said. "Depending on the child, some families may need to be more vigilant than others about keeping sweets out of the house and limiting how easily accessible they are."
Lumeng and colleagues did food experiments with about 200 children at ages 21, 27 and 33 months.
All were from low-income families receiving subsidies for health care, food and early childhood education services.
For the experiment, researchers asked the kids' mothers to feed them a typical lunch. When they were done, researchers put down a plate with two Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, two Oreos, five frosted Keebler animal cookies, two rainbow candy blast Chips Ahoy cookies, two Keebler fudge stripe chocolate-coated cookies, 10 Pringles potato chips and 10 Frito-Lay Cheetos cheese puffs.
Kids sat with the snack plate for 10 minutes and ate whatever they liked. Then, researchers took it away, noted how children reacted to the removal, and then weighed what was left to determine exactly how much the kids ate.
The children who consumed more total calories and more sweets at 27 months were more likely to be heavier than the average child at age 33 months, researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
Boys, older children and kids with more educated mothers were more likely to snack after the meal, the study also found.
Because the study was done in children's homes, differences in the kids' lunches may have influenced the results, the authors note. But doing the experiment this way also means the results may more closely resemble what would happen in the real world.
While the study only included low-income families, the findings mirror results from other research that linked eating sweets after meals to obesity in wealthier households, Lumeng said.
Poverty still might influence snacking habits, especially for kids who don't always get enough to eat or have inconsistent access to healthy foods, said Dr. Lenna Liu, a pediatrician at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children's Hospital who wasn't involved in the study.
Regardless of income levels, children with unpredictable meal schedules or frequently skipped meals may eat when they're not hungry to compensate for uncertainty about when they will eat again, Liu said by email.
Sweets, too, are the one type of food that even picky eaters don't fear trying, Liu added.
To combat mindless snacking, parents need establish a predictable meal schedule and offer a variety of healthy foods.
"Limit, but do not overly restrict sweet foods," Liu said. "In particular, limit sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda or juice - have them drink water or lowfat milk."