No matter where you are, you can be sure there’s a snack close by. As a nation, we snack everywhere—in our home, office, car, gym, and even at church. There's a Snack Count mobile device that counts your daily nibbles, and I'm sure there's one to locate your favorite crunchy munchies. Even McDonald’s is in the snack category with its new snack wraps that happen to be more like a meal, with 260–340 calories a piece.
There’s a big downside to all this unabashed between-meal eating: empty calories. And many food experts believe that excessive snacking is contributing to our ever-expanding waistlines.
Need proof? A 2010 study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that adults are now eating some 579 calories from snack foods daily, or almost a quarter of their daily calories.
The researchers tracked snacking patterns from the late 1970s through 2006 and found some disturbing trends. Up to 97% of adults snack daily, compared to 71% three decades ago. Snacks used to contribute 357 calories (14% of total caloric intake) a day, but those between-meal calories have increased by 222 calories. Most of us now snack more than twice per day, and the average calories of our snacks is a whopping 226 calories (totaling 579 calories each day).
If we grazed on fresh fruit and veggies, there would be no harm in all the noshing, but our current snack choices are loaded with calories but lacking in nutrients. Dessert-type foods, salty snacks like potato and tortilla chips, and sweetened beverages were the top three contributors of the snack calories in this study. Other popular snack items include nuts, alcoholic beverages, candy, fruit drinks, and sports drinks.
We are humans, not cattle
As adults, many of us eat before we are physically hungry, and we stop eating way after we've had enough. We have lost all the ability to regulate caloric intake based on our internal hunger cues, and we respond to our emotional and environmental cues.
Unlike cows and other animals that graze all day, humans are genetically programmed for eating then fasting for short periods of time. Getting back to a more “normalized” eating pattern that consists of breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a mid-morning and afternoon snack (100- 200 calories max) can help break this pattern of all-day eating.
Like a bad financial investment, the calories in most snack foods (Doritos, Famous Amos cookies) are worthless, so try some of my favorite healthy snacks. When snacking, try to combine protein, fiber, and fat, like an apple and peanut putter, yogurt and fruit, or carrots and hummus. But portion control is just as important as snack choices. Remind yourself what 200 calories looks like and adapt it to your favorite nibbles. Happy snacking!