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Okay, 'fess up. How long has it been since you've eaten something? Three hours? One hour? A few minutes? Are you snacking as you read this? If so, chances are you've got company. Some 64 percent of Americans say they snack at least once a day, up 33 percent since 1989, according to a recent Roper poll. Snacking is even more rampant among adults under 30, with 71 percent regularly munching between meals. And it's not as if all this snacking means we're eating fewer meals: In fact, the heartiest snackers still eat three squares a day, says Information Resources, a consumer trend tracker in Chicago.
Most of us snack on things that are quick, convenient, and loaded with calories, usually while we're in transit -- one of the few times we're sitting long enough to eat. The Roper poll found that 83 percent of us dine at the dashboard. And why not? Grab-and-go food isn't hard to come by. "It used to be you could only find food in supermarkets and restaurants, but now you can get it everywhere, and all the time," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, D.C. "Every event -- business meetings, school events, the PTA -- is turned into an eating opportunity." Our environment has become a movable feast of drive-thrus, fast-food chains, vending machines, and mall food courts -- all serving sugary, salty, fatty treats. Indeed, studies at Penn State University, in University Park, Pennsylvania, have amply demonstrated that the more food we're exposed to, the more we eat.
Are we snacking more because it's there, or is it there because we're snacking more? Sociologists may take years to unravel this chicken-egg proposition, but food industry reps insist they're merely responding to what consumers want. Indeed, to satisfy our insatiable appetites, they've come up with packaging that makes food quicker, easier, and more portable. No utensils required. New developments in the $68.6 billion snack-food market do include some healthy options, such as grab-and-go soup, squirtable yogurt, and bite-size cereal bars. But there's still a bonanza of chips, cookies, and crackers sold in cups that fit comfortably into car cupholders.
Convenient packaging, a dizzying array of choices, little time for regular meals and high-stress lives all feed our desire to snack. The net result is that more than 18 percent of our daily calories now come from snack foods, according to research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- a more than 60 percent increase since 1977. And we've got the waistlines to show for it. Today, 65 percent of adults and 30 percent of school-age children are overweight. Excess snacking isn't entirely responsible for the obesity epidemic, but it has played a significant role. "If every person is eating just 100 extra calories a day [less than a can of soda], that's enough to explain the rise in obesity over the past 20 years," says Wootan.
Does all this mean snacking is ipso facto bad for our health? Not at all. Most dietitians say one, two, even three snacks a day keep energy high, blood sugar steady, and hunger in check. "It's reasonable to eat something every three hours," says Rebecca Unger, MD, a pediatrician at the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. "Snacks are important, but if they're not nutritious, they do more harm than good."
The fact that we snack isn't the problem -- it's that we snack poorly, filling up on jumbo portions of high-fat, low-nutrient, calorie-dense foods and drinks. Take your average midmorning snack, say, a Starbucks' cinnamon scone. How bad could that be? Very: It has 530 calories and 26 grams of fat. And the Lincoln Navigator of snacks, Cinnabon's Pecanbon, packs a whopping 1,100 calories and 56 grams of fat into its doughy swirls -- more than half a day's calories. Then there are the liquid "snacks": super-size sodas and juice drinks. These are major pitfalls, not only because a 60-ounce soda can contain 700 or more calories, but because we drink them without thinking, then eat more on top of them. A Cornell University study found that regular soda drinkers consumed nearly 250 more calories each day than non-soda drinkers.
"We don't know why liquid calories don't tweak the hunger system as much as food calories, but they really add up," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, Guthrie chair of nutrition at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan.
Finally, snacking while working, driving, channel surfing, or otherwise doing something that takes our mind off what we're eating only prompts more snacking. "When we don't focus on our food, we don't have the sense that we're being fed, so we eat more," says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "When you're aware of what you're eating, you become more satisfied."
To get snacking back on track, we've got to shift our perception of what constitutes a snack. For starters, nutrition experts advise choosing snacks that are between 100 and 150 calories apiece. Active folks can push it to 200 calories, but no one needs the 1,000-plus calorie behemoths peddled by fast-food joints.
Next, we need to think of snacks not as treats, but as ways to get those servings of fruits, vegetables, and dairy we skip at regular meals. So if you missed fruit at breakfast, snack on a pear later. You can make fruits and vegetables more tempting by combining them with other foods -- an apple with a tablespoon of cashew butter (available in health-food stores) or veggie slices with dip. Adding a small flavor hit or varying the texture of a garden-variety snack can make it taste better and feel more satisfying. Another tip: Mix carbs with protein, or a little fat with some fiber, to give a simple snack more fill power. Unlike high-carb snacks that are digested quickly, prompting the swings in blood sugar that stoke hunger, combo snacks are digested more slowly, holding blood sugar levels steady so you're far less likely to raid the vending machine.
Finally, make healthy snacking easy by keeping good choices at hand. Carry energy bars in your bag or keep fruit and low-fat string cheese at your office. "The most powerful law of psychology is the law of least effort," says David Levitsky, PhD, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. "If it's easier to pop some fruit or veggies into your mouth than it is to trudge down to the vending machine for candy, then you're more likely to snack smartly."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2004.