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N Engl J Med. 1991 Jan 24;324(4):232-5.

The variability of young children's energy intake.

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  • 1School of Human Resources and Family Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign.



Research conducted in the 1930s showed that, given nutritious choices, children can select an adequate diet without adult supervision. Paradoxically, children grew well and were healthy despite patterns of intake at individual meals that were unpredictable and highly variable.


To investigate in more detail the energy intake of young children, we measured 24-hour food intake for 15 children, from two to five years of age, on six days. For each of the six days of the study, coefficients of variation were calculated for each child for each of the six meals and snacks (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and morning, afternoon, and evening snacks) and for total daily energy intake.


The children's intake at individual meals was highly variable, but total daily energy intake was relatively constant for each child. The mean coefficient of variation for each child's energy intake at individual meals was 33.6 percent; in contrast, the mean coefficient of variation for each child's total daily energy intake was 10.4 percent. In most cases, high energy intake at one meal was followed by low energy intake at the next meal, or vice versa.


Although children's food consumption is highly variable from meal to meal, daily energy intake is relatively constant, because children adjust their energy intake at successive meals.

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