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If you have kids, you've likely said it. And as kids, we all likely heard it: Stop snacking or you'll ruin your appetite. Well, that may sound like the Dark Ages to kids today, many of whom are growing accustomed to continuous eating.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on new data that shows snack time is no longer just a once or twice-a-day habit.

ALLISON AUBREY: So how many times does the typical American kid snack each day? Well, for most elementary school students, it starts with a mid-morning snack.

Unidentified Kids: Apples.

Unidentified Woman: Apple, there are green ones and red ones.

AUBREY: So, it's fruits for these middle-schoolers in Somerville, Mass. That's a good start. But according to researcher Barry Popkin, this is not the norm. He studied the eating habits of some 31,000 children using a nationally representative survey. And he found two things. First, kids are eating very frequently, probably long before hunger pangs set in. Twenty percent of children are snacking up to six times a day. And what they're putting in their mouths are foods that are calorie dense, but nutrient sparse.

Professor BARRY POPKIN (Nutrition, University of North Carolina): My data shows indeed kids are eating every few hours now. That's not how we ate 20 and 30 years ago. And, in fact, between the '70s and the '80s and between the '80s and '90s, and now again we keep adding snacking events every day.

AUBREY: When a similar survey was conducted in the 1970s that found children were consuming most calories during meal time, but today almost 600 calories a day come from snacking and drinking in between meals. And Popkin says, more frequently than not, the beverages that cross kids' lips are juices and sweetened drinks.

Prof. POPKIN: They've cut down their fruit intake. They've cut out their milk intake. So, these are soft drinks and salty snacks, desserts and candies and fruit juice. So, we've essentially moved from healthy foods to unhealthy foods while we've increased our calories.

AUBREY: One of the most striking trends researchers see in these numbers is what's happened to the eating habits of the preschool set. Children two to six years old have become big time snackers eating one to two more times each day compared to a child of the 1970s.

Ms. EILEEN KENNEDY (Dean, Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University): For me that's a real concern.

AUBREY: That's Eileen Kennedy. She's dean of Tufts University, Friedman School of Nutrition Science And Policy. She says since so many young children are in daycare during these early years, parents don't have as much control over daily eating. This could explain part of the increase. And since so many kids seem to be consuming more, eating everywhere, from the car during afternoon commutes to the soccer field after practices or games, it's just started to feel normal.

Ms. KENNEDY: I think for most of us the strongest predictor of how we're going to eat is the environment that we live in.

AUBREY: Marlene Schwartz is deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. She says: As eating habits at home have changed over the past three decades, so too have our perceptions about weight. She says recently when she looked back at class pictures from her elementary school days, she was struck by how thin all the kids seemed.

Ms. MARLENE SCHWARTZ (Deputy Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University): Yeah, you look and you think, wow, those kids are so skinny. And the truth is they were actually average.

AUBREY: She says what she found when she analyzed the body mass index data of current students in her town, a very educated suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, was pretty surprising, particularly because most parents think their kids are a healthy weight.

Ms. SCHWARTZ: And people were shocked to see that even in our town, our rates of childhood obesity were right up there with the national averages. So, I think what people fail to understand is how difficult it is to visually assess whether a child is obese or overweight.

AUBREY: Schwartz says it's as if we've gradually gotten used to bigger children who like to snack a lot.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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