Satisfying Snacks versus Empty-Calorie Cravings: Study shows that kids can fill up on fewer calories when eating healthy, beneficial snacks compared to nutrition-less junk foods

veggie platterKids love to snack, whether at home watching television or in the lunchroom with friends—but the type of snack they have can make an enormous difference in how many calories they actually eat! The new USDA nutrition standards have helped improve individual snack options in schools, but a study from Cornell University shows that variation may also play a role in eating behavior. Researchers put snack foods to the test and found that switching to a combination of healthier snacks can help kids eat far fewer calories but still feel full.

According to the study, foods can fall into one of two categories:

  1. Typical Junk Foods: These are snacks like candy and chips, which are often packed with calories but have few nutritional benefits like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They may be tasty, but because they lack these satisfying nutrients, you could eat a whole bag before feeling full.
  2. “Nutrient-Dense” Foods: These are healthier snacks like vegetables, low-fat dairy, fruits, nuts, and whole grains. Unlike foods from the typical junk category, they have tons of nutritional benefits with far fewer calories, leading researchers to hypothesize that kids would fill up on fewer calories if they ate nutrient-dense snacks instead of typical junk foods.

Researchers put these 2 snack types to the test by inviting kids to watch a popular TV show while munching on food from 1 of 4 possible snack trays:

  1. Potato Chips
  2. Cheese
  3. Vegetables (broccoli, baby carrots, & bell peppers)
  4. Cheese & Vegetable Combo

Afterwards, the researchers looked at how much each child ate before feeling full—and the differences were enormous! Kids who had potato chips ate a whopping 620 calories, but kids who had the Cheese/Vegetable Combo only ate 170 calories—that’s 72% fewer calories just from switching to a healthy combo of snacks! All of the kids reported feeling full afterwards, so the healthy swap left them well-fed without feeling deprived.

To help cut calories, increase nutrition, and keep your child full, try these tips at home and when packing snacks for the lunchroom:

  1. Ditch empty-calorie snacks and serve healthful alternatives.

Even kids who ate cheese alone stopped snacking after 200 calories, which is an enormous improvement compared to the empty-calorie chips. Get rid of those junk foods and provide nutrient-dense snacks that are full of vitamins, protein, calcium, and fiber!

  1. Create combinations of healthier snacks.

People eat more when there is a variety of food available, so combining different nutrient-dense snacks will give kids a big nutritional boost without a ton of calories. For example, this study combined cheese & vegetables: the cheese provided protein and calcium, while the vegetables had tons of vitamins and fiber.


Kelsey Gatto, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab 


Wansink, B., Shimizu, M., & Brumberg, A. (2013). Association of nutrient-dense snack combinations with calories and vegetable intake. Pediatrics, 131(1), pp. 22-29. 

Photo by Gandydancer / CC BY