What's Up With the U.S. Snacking Obsession?

by Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN on Oct 23, 2015

CEC Feature

Between-meal nibbles are more popular than ever. Check out the best ways to make sure your clients snack wisely.

Snacking is no longer an occasional treat for Americans. Data show that more of us are snacking, that we’re snacking more often and that we’re consuming more calories from snacks. But is our snacking habit hurting our health and waistlines, or does snacking have important nutrition, health and performance benefits? And should snack timing count as well as snack selection?

Come along as we dig deeper into the essence of snacking.

A Snapshot of Snacking in America

According to the U.S. government’s most recent What We Eat in America survey, nearly all (97%) 
of U.S. adults snack at least once a day. Collect-ively, we’re getting about one-quarter of our daily calories from snacks (USDA 2014a), and we’re snacking on just about anything edible for reasons that shift by the hours of the clock.

Snacking all day is becoming more and more common. Government data show that 82% of American adults snack twice or more per day, and 56% snack three or more times per day (USDA 2014b).

On average, women consume about 400 calories per day from snacks, while men consume approximately 600 calories a day (USDA 2011). Compared with 30 years ago, we’re consuming 222 more calories per day from snacks. And over time, our snacks have acquired more calories: In 1977, snacks had an average of 144 calories; by 2006, they averaged 226 calories (Piernas & Popkin 2010). > >

How Are Cultural Changes 
Influencing Snacking?

Researchers from the Hartman Group, which studies consumer habits, tie the rise in snacking to a variety of cultural shifts, including an increase in the number of people who eat alone and a decline in meal family (Hartman Group 2013). Other changes affecting our collective snacking patterns include meal skipping and lack of planning. A 2013 Hartman study found that 48% of Americans skip meals at least three times a week; they snack instead. More than 6 out of 10 consumers (63%) decide what to consume less than an hour before eating (Esterl 2014).

Snacks provide quick, convenient mini-meal options for meal skippers and nonplanners. Many Americans skip breakfast; instead, they eat morning snacks. A third of breakfast skippers eat an early-
morning snack, up from 14% in 2010, and 55% eat 
a midmorning snack, up from 45% in 2010, according to a 2014 survey by market research company IRI, quoted in the Wall Street Journal. The most popular morning snacks are portable items like yogurt, bakery goods and snack bars (Esterl 2014).

Chips and fruit are the most popular afternoon snacks, according to a 2013 Hartman consumer study. Candy and ice cream remain evening snack favorites (Hartman Group 2013).

Snacking is also replacing meals, particularly for Millennials (loosely defined as anyone born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s). More than any other generation, Millennials snack during typical meal times, according to Euromonitor. Its research shows that Millennials eat snacks for breakfast, lunch and dinner nearly twice as often as any other generation (Crawford 2015).

When and Why 
Are We Snacking?

The Hartman Group identifies several occasions and reasons for snacking (Hartman Group 2004):

  • after work and before dinner (the most 
common times of day for snacking)
  • instead of eating lunch during the workday
  • while cooking, at any time of day
  • after dinner and before bed
  • while watching TV
  • to feel good, provide 
a reward or mark a point in time
  • when socializing or in response to peer pressure (e.g., sharing doughnuts or birthday cake with office coworkers)

What Triggers 
the Urge to Snack?

HealthFocus International® researchers have delved into when American adults are most inclined to snack. In the morning, we may weigh the value of nutrition but we’re much more motivated by convenience. Evening and late-night snacks reflect a desire for reward and indulgence. Morning and afternoon snacks are needed to provide energy, while energy is not a big factor in the evening (HFI 2012).

“Snacking takes on different meanings throughout the day,” observes Barb Katz, president of HealthFocus International. “When you talk about making snacking ‘better for you,’ you first have to define the purpose of the occasion. In some cases, like later in the day, when people talk about snacking, they are far more focused on indulgent snacking than they would be earlier in the day, when the purpose of snacking may be more related to nutrition, energy or other needs.”

How Does Snacking Affect 
Weight and Overall Health?

Data from the 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows no significant correlations between snacking frequency and body mass index (USDA 2011). Though frequency may have no significant influence on weight, the calorie content of snacks may affect weight, depending on the overall calorie content of someone’s diet.

How Does Snacking Influence 
Calorie and Nutrient Intakes?

Government surveys have estimated that 24% of the calories in adult Americans’ diets come from snacks. Relative to that average, snacks account for

  • higher proportions of alcohol, carbohydrates and total sugars;
  • similar proportions of vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium and magnesium; and
  • lower proportions of most other nutrients.

Snacking is associated with more nutrient-rich diets. However, while it’s true that some snacks provide essential nutrients, many are calorie rich and nutrient poor.

“I advise my clients to make their snack choices count toward meeting their recommended daily servings from each food group, especially if meals are unpredictable,” counsels Robyn Flipse, registered dietitian, nutritionist and cultural anthropologist at Nutrition Communication Services and coauthor with Marisa Bradanini of Fighting the Freshman Fifteen (Three Rivers Press 2002). “It helps to think of snacks as ‘mini meals,’ so you’ll choose the kinds of foods you might have if sitting down to a meal, instead of just the portable and nonperishable items marketed and sold as ‘snack foods.’”

Government data show that the greatest proportion of snack calories comes from candy, cookies and pastries, followed by alcohol for men and sugar-sweetened beverages for women. Men consume more than twice as many calories (16% of snack calories) from alcohol as women do (7% of snack calories) (USDA 2011).

Active adults who snack on alcoholic drinks may want to reconsider their choice. “Alcohol may adversely affect strength, speed and stamina,” cautions Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, CSSD, a sports nutrition consultant and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. “Alcohol provides calories but not the necessary protein and carbs that active bodies need. So if you opt for a beverage as a snack, score with the pour: a smoothie or a ‘propsicle’ (protein, fruit and vegetables) provides energy and enjoyment without erasing fueling and body composition goals.”

Who Benefits From Snacking?

Snacks can expand nutrient intake, reduce hunger (motivating better choices at mealtime), improve hydration status, boost performance and increase endurance.

Nutrient content and timing influence the benefits derived from snacking. A study in the Journal of Nutrition evaluated the impact of afternoon snacks on appetite control, satiety and diet quality in adolescents. The research was conducted in a controlled laboratory environment so that all food intake could be carefully monitored and measured.

Snacks used in this study were classified as 
either high protein (39% of calories from protein in a 266-calorie snack) or high fat (43% of calories from fat in a 252-calorie snack). Both snacks reduced appetite compared with no snack. The high-protein snack—but not the high-fat snack—provided longer-lasting satiety compared with no snack. The high-protein snack also led participants to choose fewer high-fat, high-sugar evening snacks compared with a high-fat afternoon snack or no snack. The study authors concluded that high-protein afternoon snacks may provide multiple benefits, including improved appetite control in the evening and improved diet quality through better food choices (Leidy et al. 2015).

For certain populations, frequency and calorie content may also affect the benefits derived from snacking. A study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging showed positive, significant associations between snacking frequency and percentage of energy from snacking and the gait speed of older adults. Older adults who snacked most often and consumed the most calories from snacks had the greatest gait speed (Xu et al. 2013).

“Snacking can be an excellent way to increase energy and nutrient intake, but I recommend caution when advising clients to simply increase snacking as a way to walk faster,” says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, professor emerita at Georgia State University. “Older adults, even those who are physically active, have a slower metabolism, which can lead to ‘weight creep.’ So, snacking should be approached with thought given to providing needed nutrients while keeping calories in check. Nutrients that are needed in greater amounts as we age include vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and vitamins B6 and B12.”

What Has to Change 
With Our Snacking Habits?

The USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL 2010) reports that, in general, snacking is associated with higher intakes of macronutrients and dietary folate, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and dietary fiber, as well as total sugars and saturated fatty acids. While many of these nutrients are essential and beneficial, excess sugar and saturated fatty acids can be detrimental to health. As experts quoted throughout this article have advised, the focus should be on nutrient-rich whole foods that can fill nutrient gaps. (See Table 1, “Help Clients Pick the Right Snack at the Right Time.”) > >

Which Nutrients Should 
We Look For in Snacks?

Registered dietitians across the country agree that a healthy snack contains foods from at least two food groups. According to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “The majority of the U.S. population has low intakes of key food groups that are important sources of the shortfall nutrients, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy” (DGAC 2015).

Research shows that the most satisfying snacks contain water, protein and fiber (DGAC 2015). As a nation, we’re not meeting our nutrient needs for 
calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium. Including dairy foods (think milk, yogurt, cheese) as snacks is a smart strategy for getting protein, water (the amount depends on the type of dairy), calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Adding fruits and vegetables provides fiber plus potassium. Nuts, seeds and whole grains will also contribute some protein and fiber.

What About Snack Calories?

There’s no easy answer here. One person may be snacking throughout the day, replacing all his meals with snacks, while another snacks in the afternoon to boost energy levels because she isn’t getting a good night’s sleep.

Snack manufacturers lead us to believe there’s magic in 100-calorie packs, but many people may need more to feel satisfied. Body weight (stable, increasing or decreasing?) and hunger provide better cues than specific snack calorie recommendations.

What’s the Bottom Line on Snacking?

Before you recommend snacks, assess why people are snacking.

  • If they’re snacking for nutrition, focus on nutrient-rich, whole-food snacks.
  • If they’re snacking because they’re hungry, focus on snacks that satisfy hunger best by providing protein, fiber and water. Hummus with vegetables, Greek yogurt with berries and whole-grain cereal with milk are examples.
  • If convenience is important, focus on healthful grab-and-go options that need little or no prep.
  • If they need energy, encourage carbohydrate-rich snacks but steer away from high-sugar snacks that provide quick energy that dissipates quickly. Protein-rich chocolate milk or a fiber-rich large banana will boost energy better than a beverage whose only nutrition comes from added sweeteners.
  • If they need a snack to reward or indulge themselves, promote mindfulness about portion size. Encourage people to slow down, sit back and savor every sip or bite.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, is an award-winning registered dietitian, a nutritionist, a farmer's daughter, a public speaker, an author, and founder and president of Farmer's Daughter© Consulting, an agriculture, food and culinary communications firm. she and her husband live in Carmichael, California.

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Chapman, C.D., et al. 2012. Lifestyle determinants of the drive to eat: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96 (3), 492–97.

Crawford, E. 2015. Millennials are driving snack sales growth and reshaping how Americans eat, says Euromonitor. FoodNavigator.com. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/Millennials-drive-snack-growth-reshape-how-Americans-eat-Euromonitor.

DGAC (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee). 2015. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. http://http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/PDFs/Scientific-Report-of-the-2015-Dietary-Guidelines-Advisory-Committee.pdf">http:health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/PDFs/Scientific-Report-of-the-2015-Dietary-Guidelines-Advisory-Committee.pdf.

Esterl, M. 2014. Forget dinner. It’s always snack time in America. Wall Street Journal. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.wsj.com/articles/forget-dinner-its-always-snack-time-1404240759.

Hartman Group. 2004. Snacking our way through the day: Food culture in America. Hartbeat, Newsletter of the Hartman Group. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. http://hartbeat.hartman-group.com/article/64/.

Hartman Group. 2013. Snacking in America infographic. Hartbeat, Newsletter of the Hartman Group. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. http://hartbeat.hartman-group.com/article/457/Snacking-in-America-Infographic.

HFI (HealthFocus International). 2012. HealthFocus International 2012 Trend Survey. St. Petersburg, FL: HealthFocus International. 

Holt, S.H., et al. 1995. A satiety index of common foods. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49 (9), 675–90. 

Leidy, H.J., et al. 2015. Consuming high-protein soy snacks affects appetite control, satiety and diet quality in young people and influences select aspects of mood and cognition. Journal of Nutrition, 145 (7), 1614–22. 

NEL (Nutrition Evidence Library, USDA). 2010. What is the relationship between snacking and nutrient intake? Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.nel.gov/evidence.cfm?evidence_summary_id=250277.

Piernas, C., & Popkin, B.M. 2010. Snacking increased among U.S. adults between 1977 and 2006. Journal of Nutrition, 140 (2), 325–32. 

USDA. 2011. Snacking patterns of U.S. adults. What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008 Dietary Data Brief No. 4. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400530/pdf/DBrief/4_adult_snacking_0708.pdf.

USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service). 2014a. Table 25. Snacks: Percentages of selected nutrients contributed by food and beverages consumed at snack occasions, by gender and age, in the United States, 2011-2012. What We Eat in America, NHANES 2011-2012. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400530/pdf/1112/Table_25_SNK_GEN_11.pdf.

USDA. 2014b. Table 29. Snacks: Distribution of snack occasions, by gender and age, in the United States, 2011-2012. What We Eat in America, NHANES 2011-2012. Accessed Aug. 18, 2015. www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400530/pdf/1112/Table_29_DSO_GEN_11.

Xu, B., et al. 2013. Snacking may improve physical function among older Americans. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, 17 (4), 393–97. 

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About the Author

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN IDEA Author/Presenter

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, is an award-winning dietitian, farmer’s daughter, public speaker, author, and president of Farmer’s Daughter® Consulting, Inc., an agriculture, food, and culinary communications firm. During her 20-year career, Amy has worked for Dole Food Company, the California Walnut Commission, and The Culinary Institute of America. Today Amy works with food companies, commodity boards, and seed companies to dispel myths and provide science-based information about our food system. Amy has been widely recognized for her nutrition leadership including receiving the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy Nutrition Impact award in 2014. Amy received her BS in dietetics from the University of California, Davis and her MS in nutrition communication from Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. A farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, today Amy and her husband Scott Miller live in Carmichael, California.