America is a nation of snackers. According to a survey by Nielsen, a consumer research group, 91 percent of respondents admitted to snacking daily. 25 percent reported having snacks three to five times a day, and 3 percent said they grazed almost constantly. 31 percent indulged in binge snacking on occasion, while 8 percent did so quite frequently.
The reasons why people reach for snack food are numerous and complex. For men it’s mostly a means to satisfy hunger or cravings between meals, while for women it can be a way to cope with stress, boredom, or other emotional disturbances. On average, women also snack more often and choose different kinds of foods than men, like sweet versus salty items, according to the study.
As with most eating habits, a propensity for snacking develops early in life. Half of all American children eat snacks about four to five times a day, adding hundreds of extra calories to their diet, based on the findings of one study.
“My fear is that we are moving away from being hungry and eating for satiation to just eating,” said Dr. Barry M. Popkin, director of nutrition epidemiology at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study report, in an interview with the New York Times.
Young children, ages 2 to 6 years old, show the biggest increase in snacking habits. There also seems to be a trend away from regular meals like breakfast and lunch in favor of all-day grazing, which impacts the overall nutritional quality of what these kids eat.
“They are eating more times, and they’re not eating healthy foods,” said Dr. Popkin. “It would be great if they were eating fruits and vegetables, and reduced-fat milk, and every now and then a cookie or two. But the foods are going from bad to worse.”
Adults are not faring much better in this regard. Most Americans receive almost a third of their calorie intake from snacks, nearly 600 calories per day. Snack food has grown into a huge industry with total annual sales of well over $60 billion. This doesn’t include so-called “snackables” in fast food and pizza places. Latest trends are snack items available in restaurants between the hours when regular meals are served.
“The business plan of the modern food company has been to put their foods on every street corner, making it socially acceptable to eat 24/7,” said Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating.” The result has been a nutritional disaster, he added.
Of course, the mere fact that people like to eat more often is not necessarily a lamentable change. A classic study once concluded that frequent consumption of small portions of food may be more conducive to weight loss than a standard three-meals-a-day pattern. The emphasis here, obviously, is on small portion sizes and also nutritional quality. Unfortunately, neither standards have been kept up very well since the study was first published in 1966.
Still, nibbling here and there can be a good thing, even for weight loss, if it keeps you from becoming too ravenous, which then can lead you to raiding the vending machine or refrigerator later, said Dr. Joan Salge Blake, professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of “Nutrition and You: Core Concepts for Good Health” (Cummings 2010). The key is to make sure your snacks don’t consist of empty calories but include nutrients your body really needs, she advises.
Also, by eating more often, you should not increase your overall calorie intake. The problem is that when people multiply their eating occasions, they often keep the same serving sizes they are used to, which can quickly result in overeating and subsequent weight gain.
The best way to schedule your snacking regimen is to listen to your body. “Eat when you feel slightly hungry and stop when you feel just slightly full,” Dr. Blake suggests. But pace yourself. It takes about 20 minutes for your mind to register when your stomach has had enough.
For healthy snacks ideas, continue reading here.