Overweight Children Eat More Later in the Day

Children who are overweight tend to eat a relatively large share of their calories later in the day, a new study suggests.

Some studies of adults have found connections between body weight and eating late in the day; people who eat late in the day tend to eat more calories overall, while those who prefer a big breakfast tend to eat fewer calories throughout the day.

In the new study, of more than 11,000 U.S. children and teenagers, researchers found that compared with their healthy-weight peers, overweight 6- to 11-year-olds generally ate a larger share of their daily calories after 4 p.m.

The reverse was true among teenagers, however — with overweight teens eating a relatively smaller share of their calories after 4 p.m., according to findings published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Based on the data, it seemed that teenagers who ate a relatively large amount of calories late in the day compensated for it by eating less at other times, explained researcher Dr. Sibylle Kranz, of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

It is not clear whether eating late causes school-age children to become overweight teenagers and adults, Kranz told Reuters Health. The study data, taken from a government health and nutrition survey, were collected at a single point in time.

Long-term studies are needed to gain a better understanding of how the timing of meals and snacks affects children's weight, according to Kranz and her colleagues.

Adults who want to shed pounds, or avoid gaining any, often hear advice to avoid eating after 7 or 8 p.m. But overall calorie intake, experts say, is the main concern. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight, regardless of when those calories are consumed.

Similarly, the quality of a child's diet and total calorie intake — along with physical activity — are most important to preventing childhood obesity, Kranz noted.

She recommends that parents help their children learn healthy habits and eat more "nutrient-dense" foods — like fruits, vegetables, beans and high-fiber grains — that are relatively low in calories but high in nutrients.

The timing of meals and snacks can enter into this, according to Kranz. She pointed out that the foods people eat late in the day are often nutritionally dubious snack items. What's more, she said, the circumstances of evening eating — frequently in front of the TV — may cause people to eat more than they need to satisfy their hunger.