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Today's Kids Are Helping Themselves

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Liz Davis, 14, used to do a lot of mindless munching.

When she watched movies with friends, she'd chow down on nachos with cheese. ''Doritos are my favorite snack. I could eat a bag without realizing it,'' says the high school freshman from Puyallup, Wash.

It was a lot of calories, and they added up -- to a total of 195 pounds. Davis, who is 5-foot-6, has learned to control the habit, but other teens haven't.

Nutritionists often hear true confessions from overweight kids about their out-of-control grazing. Pediatricians are seeing the results on the scales. Right now, about 20% to 30% of American children are either overweight or at risk of becoming so.

And new research, reported in this month's issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, shows that many children and teens are spending a lot of time absent-mindedly snacking. A survey of 615 children, ages 8 to 17, and their parents found:

* More than 50% of children and teens eat -- some of them constantly -- when they are playing video or computer games or doing homework.

* Kids often chow down after school, after dinner, and off and on during the rest of the day.

* Parents significantly underestimate how much their kids are snacking. They are unaware of some of the foods being purchased in school snack bars and vending machines, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

Other studies show how the calories add up. Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has found that kids are consuming 150 to 200 more calories a day now than they were 10 to 15 years ago. Because of frequent snacking, they eat a third to half of a meal more a day than they did a decade ago, he says.

''There is so much mindless munching and gulping going on with kids today,'' says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a registered dietitian who developed the survey for the American Dietetic Association Foundation.

''They are going from one activity to the next thinking 'What am I going to eat next?' because they have access to food everywhere.''

Those foods are often high in calories, sugar, fat and salt, says Moag-Stahlberg, the mother of two teenagers. They are eating things that ''we thought of as big treats as kids, such as soda, chips, cookies and candy. They see these treats like a staple in their diets. They have access to these types of foods and beverages morning, noon and night.''

This endless snacking habit has been gaining momentum for the past several years and seems to be getting worse, Moag-Stahlberg says.

Many kids recognize what they are doing. Karli Merlich, 13, an eighth-grader in Federal Way, Wash., says she used to reach for chips, candy or sandwiches while doing homework, playing, working on the computer or talking on the phone.

''I wanted to find a way to distract myself. I was stalling from doing what I needed to do,'' she says.

Apple or doughnut?

Merlich's weight was creeping up, so she revamped her ways. Now, if she needs to nibble, she'll have an apple or orange.

But her friends are still at it. They munch on mini-doughnuts and sip on sodas that they have tucked in their backpacks at school.

Charlie Kravitz, 14, of Washington, D.C., says he has friends who eat all the time, but they are going through growth spurts and are really hungry.

Some kids eat all day, says Edith Howard Hogan, a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C.

''They eat no matter what activity they are doing or mode of transportation they are taking,'' Hogan says. ''They eat in the car to and from school. They eat when they are wandering around in the mall. They eat while they are on the playing field at practices.''

Snacking constantly is a big problem among college students, who often have boxes of cereals, pretzels, chips and popcorn in their rooms, says Ann Litt, author of The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus.

''They sit around with their friends and put their hands in those boxes and bags, and they do totally absent-minded grazing,'' Litt says. ''They don't even consider the food they are eating.''

Some of the snacking is started by real hunger, nutritionists say.

Kids often come home from school or sports practice absolutely ravenous. They might start off by eating an apple, but they're still hungry, so they have a couple of handfuls of cereal, then a couple of handfuls of chips or pretzels, then they eat a bag of flavored rice cakes, says Litt, a registered dietitian in Bethesda, Md., who works with overweight kids and teens.

''A lot of the foods are good foods, but it's that grazing that gets them into trouble,'' she says. Before they know it, they've consumed 600 to 800 calories.

Kids also are gulping down hundreds of extra calories a day with sodas, fruit drinks and juices, smoothies and fancy coffee drinks, she says.

This non-stop eating may be the result of dieting run amok. Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian in Ocean, N.J., has worked with heavy kids who ''have only known dieting or not dieting. They've never learned normal eating.''

So they are either on a diet where they deprive themselves of different foods and are chronically hungry, or they are not dieting and going hog-wild eating as much as they want of whatever they want.

'Underdeveloped' palates

Some children have been weaned on frozen convenience foods, fast foods and takeout meals, so their ''palates are underdeveloped. Salty-greasy-sweet snacks are what they are used to and what they satisfy themselves with over and over,'' Flipse says.

If you offered them some fresh pineapple or stir-fried snow peas, many would refuse to even try it, yet these are wonderfully tasty foods, she says.

The trick for kids, and adults, is to learn to go from mindless munching to mindful eating, Litt says. She advises her young patients to sit down when they are hungry and face the food, eating something that will fill them up.

For instance, when they come home from school, they might have an English muffin with peanut butter, or a bowl of soup, or even a slice of cheese pizza. A 300-calorie slice of pizza provides fewer calories than three handfuls of dense cereal, she says.

Parents need to keep a few junk foods around the house that will really satisfy a sweet tooth, Litt says. Some take the healthy message to the extreme and keep nothing tasty around, so kids overeat on other foods, she says.

One mother she knows kept only gingersnaps in the house, and her teen daughter once ate 25 of them but still wasn't satisfied. ''The girl would have been better off eating a Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookie.''

Still, parents do need to set boundaries for their kids, she says.

Liz Werner of Washington, D.C., has tried to keep the grazing to a minimum in her family with the rule that her two teen boys, Daniel and Charlie Kravitz, can eat in the kitchen and dining room only. They're not supposed to eat in the TV room, but it's a rule they constantly challenge, she says.

At 14, Liz Davis has already figured out how to be a mindful eater. She has been going to Weight Watchers since August and has dropped 18 pounds; she now weighs 178.

She has learned to munch on carrots and pretzels instead of nachos. And when she does treat herself to the nacho chips, she has them with salsa and tries to ''stay within the serving size instead of 10 times the serving size,'' she says.

Her philosophy about eating is pretty simple now: ''You have to pay attention to what goes into your mouth.''Cover storyCover story

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