The Smarter Way to Snack

Make sure you know what's really in those tempting little treats.
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Our Bad Snacking Habits

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.

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