The Science Behind Snacking

The Science Behind Snacking

The traditional three square meals a day eating pattern has given way to lots of noshing. In fact, 50% of all eating occasions are snacks. And it’s not just millennials and young adults who are eating between meals. Even 43% of baby boomers say they can’t get through a day without a snack. All this snacking provides about one-quarter of our daily calorie intake.

There are many reasons for the increase in snacking and the decrease in traditional meals, says Shelley Balanko, PhD, senior vice president of the Hartman Group, a food culture consultancy. Not only is food available at every type of gathering or on the way to run any errand, but there’s increased variety available too, making self-restraint much harder, she explains. Time constraints are eating into traditional meals, as well.

Younger adults struggle to balance work and family demands. With more time on their hands, retired folks are often on the go. The decline in meal planning and cooking skills has shifted the balance of meals and snacks too. So have the interests in better nutrition and experimenting with new flavors.

About 30% of consumers snack as an opportunity to try out new flavors, including ethnic foods. And just over half of all snacking occasions are aimed at better nutrition, such as an opportunity to get more fruits and vegetables, says Balanko. Unfortunately, she adds, 22% of all snacking is aimless, such as snacking because of boredom or to cope with stress.

Make snacks work for you

Become a planner. According to research involving over 2,700 adults and published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, consumers eat 59% of their snacks without planning. Yet typically, planning leads to better choices. Some people find it helpful to create a list of suitable snacks and to choose from that list only.

Fill in nutritional gaps. Think about what’s missing from your meals. Are you eating enough protein, sufficient fiber, adequate dairy, ample fruits and vegetables? Examine each food group or nutrient of concern, and make an informed decision about what your body needs at snack time.

Avoid aimless snacking. With more than one-fifth of snacks serving no good purpose, it’s smart to pay attention to your habits as well as emotional cues that might lead you to pointless, and potentially harmful, eating. There are more productive strategies than eating to deal with boredom and unpleasant emotions. Try some of these or create your own list.

  • Play with your pet.
  • Chat with a friend.
  • Listen to uplifting music.
  • Take a walk or simply spend time outside.
  • Sit quietly with a cup of soothing tea.
  • Practice your hobby such as painting or photography.
  • Spend time in yoga, meditation or prayer.

Good snack options

Since fruits and vegetables are very much underconsumed, set the goal to eat a fruit and/or vegetable at every snack. If you’re short on other foods or nutrients, pair your fruit or vegetable with another nutritious option. Here are some choices that may work for you for different circumstances.

  • More protein: To build or maintain muscle mass, you’ll need a good source of protein several times per day. Try low-fat cottage cheese with berries or sardines atop whole grain crackers and tomatoes.
  • More fiber: Fiber does more than keep your bowels regular. Some types of fiber help with blood sugar and blood cholesterol control. Some help you manage your appetite, and others feed the good bacteria in your gut. Enjoy a pear and a few almonds or some popcorn and raisins.
  • More beans and lentils: Pulses like beans and lentils are a treasure trove of nutrition, including protein, fiber and blood-pressure-friendly potassium. Dip raw veggies in hummus or black bean dip or snack on roasted chickpeas and baby carrots.
  • More whole grains: Eating whole grains is linked to good heart health and less risk for type 2 diabetes. Spread peanut butter and sliced bananas on whole wheat toast. Sit down to a small bowl of oatmeal with diced apples and cinnamon.
  • More fruit and vegetables: There’s a whole world out there! Enjoy any favorite fruit or vegetable during a snack.
  • More dairy: Dairy gives us both protein and calcium. Sprinkle nuts and fruit over low-fat Greek yogurt, dip veggies into a yogurt-based dip or enjoy low-fat cheese with apple slices.
  • When you don’t want a full meal: Sit down to a mini meal containing two or three food groups. Aim to include at least one good source of protein. Try a small cup of black bean soup, a couple of whole grain crackers and a few grapes. Melt reduced-fat cheese on a whole wheat tortilla, and top with jarred tomato salsa.
  • When you want something sweet: Dip strawberries, orange segments or any favorite fruit into melted chocolate.
  • When you want something crunchy: Snack on nuts, popcorn or roasted chickpeas. Pair them with fresh or dried fruit. Fill a few stalks of celery with almond or peanut butter and top them with raisins or dried cranberries.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384.