Study: Dessert with meals may help kids eat fewer calories

Did you ever wish your parent let you eat your cake alongside your broccoli? Child eating cookieA small study published in the journal Appetite this week reported that preschool children might actually eat fewer calories when dessert is served right alongside their meal instead of afterwards.

The study out of Purdue University measured how the timing of dessert made a difference in how much lunch 23 chidren ate. Half of the 2-5 year old children were served a chocolate chip cookie alongside their lunch on Thursdays and Fridays while the other half received their dessert after their lunch plates were cleared. Eight weeks later, they switched groups. Thursday’s lunch entrée was fish and Friday was pasta, two favorites of this primarily Asian and Caucasian group of children.

Accounting for age, room, menu rotation, type of meal, and presence of morning snack, researchers found that children consumed 9% more calories overall when the cookie was served after lunch trays were cleared.

Portion size was also addressed by rotating in 50% larger portions of entrée, vegetable and fruit at certain meals, but surprisingly portion size was not found to factor into total calorie intake. The authors surmised that the results might be because the kids served dessert at the same time as lunch filled up sooner and chose to eat less food overall.

Despite the small size of this study, the authors make a case for the need for continued research to learn how moms, dads and caretakers can help instill lifelong healthy eating habits in our kids.

The number of obese children in the United States has doubled since 1980 according to government data, with one in three kids now considered overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight at such a young age makes a child more likely to grow up to be obese as an adult. This in turn increases their risk of many types of cancer and other chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke and osteoarthritis.

What about the argument that serving dessert with a meal will lead children to eat their dessert first, leaving less room for more nutritious items?  The new study focused on total calories, not nutrients, so this question cannot be answered by the current study.  Future attempts to study timing of dessert should also address intake of healthful foods like fruits and vegetables and important nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin C to address the common concern from parents that their kids are eating enough of the right foods.

What do you think of serving your child dessert alongside his or her meal?

Arissa Anderson is an MPH/RD candidate from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and dietetic intern with the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Connect with Arissa on Twitter @ArissaAnderson.