Background

Children exhibit preferences for sweet flavors, and they begin to recognize hunger and satiety signals in early childhood (3-5 years). Failure to recognize or act on these signals can put children on a trajectory toward obesity. Few studies have investigated eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) or whether snack food preferences are associated with weight status in early childhood, with almost no studies of Hispanic preschoolers who may have different cultural preferences around eating than non-Hispanic preschoolers.

Methods

Children (N=134, M=53.1±4.4 months, 76.9% Hispanic) attending 16 CACFP-eligible early care and education (ECE) centers in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods completed measured BMI percentile, and a standardized EAH test following a meal. Children were told that they were playing a tasting game, and given premeasured bags of animal crackers and pretzels (~30 grams each). Children could snack ad lib or color for 10 min. Child ethnicity (Hispanic vs. not), sex, and ECE center type (Head start vs. non-Head start) were used as covariates.

Results

Boys (66.9±29.2) and girls (66.9±28.8) were similar by BMI percentile. Boys ate significantly more (M±SD) animal crackers (8.6±8.5g vs. 5.2±5.6g), pretzels (4.3±5.9g vs. 2.7±4.0g), and overall (13.0±9.8g vs. 8.0±7.0g) on the EAH test than did girls (ps<0.05). Eating more animal crackers was associated with BMI percentile (r=0.172, p<0.05). Simultaneous multiple regression models found that regardless of ethnicity, sex and center-level control variables, children who ate more animal crackers had higher BMI percentiles (β=0.203, t=2.249, p=0.026). This relationship was not found for pretzels or overall EAH (ps<0.05).

Conclusions

Young children may be more susceptible to over consuming sweet snacks compared to other snacks, regardless of hunger status. Parents and child care providers should limit access and provide healthier alternatives to tempting treats, especially in the absence of hunger, to reduce risk of overweight and obesity.