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

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

Oct 23, 2015

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
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
  • 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

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;
  • 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
(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

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,
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
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
  • 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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