The purpose of a snack is to create a bridge between meals. With days that can last upwards of fourteen hours, having breakfast at seven a.m. often means many hours before you get a break for lunch. So it seems sensible to have one or two snacks daily that include a piece of fruit, handful of nuts, yogurt, or vegetables and some hummus to help you re-energize and function optimally till your next meal. A new study suggests, however, that there are specific social drivers behind our snacking, pushing us to have too many snacks, snacks that are too large, and snacks that are mostly unhealthy, treat foods.
What are our current unhealthy snack choices?
Top choices are chips, salted (processed) nuts, popcorn, cookies, pies, chocolate, toasted refined breads, candy bars, cheese, and ice cream. They all taste good and they make us want to eat more. They’re high in fat, sugar and sodium. These choices typically cause a "crash and burn" phenomenon. You’ll experience a sugar high from many of them, and then blood sugar will fall precipitously, making you crave another (unhealthy) snack.
What’s driving us to snack so much?
The study identified six specific snacking instigators: opportunity-induced eating, coping with negative emotions, celebrating a special occasion, food rewards, social pressure, and trying to boost energy levels. These are clearly not all the drivers of snacking, but they certainly cover the most recognizable and dominant excuses or explanations. You’ll notice that positive and negative snacking instigators are included in the list. Another big reason you may be snacking a lot, if you’re in the corporate world, are the endless meetings inside and outside the office, that often involve food. Out of all these drivers, the survey of the 1544 study participants suggested that "enjoying a special occasion" was the top reason for snacking. The researchers called this a novel category, and suggested that we have become a society that can’t celebrate special moments without food. We also want quick energy, but we are mostly choosing unhealthy foods to satisfy that need.
From a gender perspective, women were driven to eat to cope with negative emotions, to enjoy a special occasion, and for an energy boost. Young people actually had high scores for most of the drivers except special occasion eating.
Bottom line: We are snacking too much and choosing the wrong foods
It is really hard not to eat, if others are eating. So in a workplace environment, where there is typically never-ending snacking, it’s hard to constantly use willpower and avoid excess snacking. Making healthier choices and using portion control are reasonable tools to help cope with the snacking environment, but if you snack too much, you’ll still gain weight. Undoing emotional relationships with food - turning to snacks for comfort, or feeling like every victory requires a food celebration - requires ongoing behavior modification. If every time you work late, you feel you have to use food to cope, or if every time you have a day off, you feel entitled to nosh through the day, you’ll gain weight and risk diseases like diabetes because of the unhealthy nature of the foods.
We need to start thinking about food as tasty fuel. One or two energizing snacks can fit into a balanced diet. What you choose, though, determines whether or not you get a healthy energy boost. If you can at least snack on fruits and vegetables and other low calorie choices, you’ll limit weight gain and reap health benefits from these choices.
My go to snack list?
- Small Greek yogurt and berries
- Low calorie whole grain waffle with one tablespoon of nut butter
- Vegetables and hummus or bean dip
- Trail mix made with nuts, whole grain cereal, and dried fruit
- Fruit and part skim string cheese
- Low sodium turkey slices and cucumbers
- A handful of nuts
How frequently should you snack?
Between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner, makes sense for most people. If you exercise in the morning, you may want to split your breakfast, or have a larger mid-morning snack and a later lunch, skipping the afternoon snack. If you exercise after work, you may need a larger afternoon snack, so just a piece of fruit, mid-morning might be your other snack. A dangerous time to snack is after dinner. That’s when you can accumulate calories that just don’t get utilized. That’s a recipe for weight gain.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”