Snacking: A Modern Day Phenomenon

As a nutritionist, I should be telling you to eat every 2-3 hours….to keep hunger at balance your blood keep your metabolism humming. Or should I?

I used to believe that… but I’m not sure I buy that story anymore. For children, for pregnant women and for the sick & elderly, smaller, more frequent meals may make sense. But, for the rest of us, constant snacking is basically a sign of poor blood sugar regulation (or emotional eating).

You see, snacking is really a modern day phenomenon. For all intents and purposes, snacking didn’t exist more than a century ago.

One of the biggest studies done on snacking behaviors revealed that:

  • Over the last 30 years, the average number of snacks consumed per day doubled, and the percentage of adults snacking rose from 59% to 90%

  • 25% of total calories now come from snacks

  • While the average American eats roughly the same amount of food during meals as in the 1970s, the number of calories Americans consume as snacks has increased to 586 calories per day (for men) and 421 calories per day (for women); this is equivalent to a full, fourth meal.

And this is just since the 1970’s!

[By the way, if you are interested in taking a quick trip down memory lane, I found this awesome history of snack introductions since the early 1900’s from Bon Appetit. As you can see, much of the product development in this arena has occurred in the last 100 years.]

From all of this, what’s important to acknowledge is that: 1) snacking is a fairly new addition to our diets and 2) snacking occasions and frequency (and therefore caloric content) are increasing. What I’d also like to posit is that 3) snacking is usually not necessary. Despite what we’ve been told, it’s not necessary for keeping your energy up, not necessary for balancing blood sugar and not necessary to prevent you from overeating.

If you are eating a balanced and nutritious meal, you should be able to go 4-6 hours without hankering for your next meal. If you are hungry before this, you are likely:

  • Metabolically inflexible or insulin resistant: This basically means that you aren’t able to readily switch between fuel sources (e.g., glucose from food, ketones from fat cells) or you aren’t appropriately responsive to insulin (which drives glucose into your cells to be utilized for energy). Improving your metabolic profile and conditioning will help balance your blood sugar for longer.

  • Tired: Studies have shown that ghrelin (your “hunger hormone”) increases when we are sleep deprived.

  • Stressed: Studies also show that ghrelin increases under both acute and chronic stress.

  • Bored (or any other uncomfortable emotion): Eating is a source of stimulation. Most of my clients experience “hunger cravings” in the middle of the afternoon, which also happens to be the time that most people are looking for a distraction from work. Cue the food. Snacking offers a great state break -- a physical and mental break from whatever it was you were doing. And, food is a miraculous multitasker - it provides a distraction, uplifts your mood (through serotonin), can offer an opportunity to connect with others and can even stimulate you (if it contains caffeine or sugar).

Beyond the fact that our bodies don’t generally require snacks to function, most snack food options are absolute crap. The top 3 categories of snacks (or 40% of snack calories) include alcoholic beverages, sugar-sweetened beverages and savory snacks (e.g., chips). I don’t think I have to tell you that none of these items are essential nutrients.

So, what does this all mean for you?

It means that you have an opportunity to re-evaluate your eating patterns. How has your current model been working for you?

Now, there may be a few times when a snack is necessary in between meals - for instance, if you are traveling and won’t have access to a proper meal for hours on end or if you’re doing endurance training and need to fuel yourself for several hours - but these tend to be the exceptions, not the rule.

I’m not saying that snacking is bad. I don’t believe that any eating practices (or foods for that matter!), in and of themselves, are bad. I do believe that we can do a better job of tuning into our bodies and figuring out what works for us...rather than always relying on external cues or advice (including what we have to say!).

Take this opportunity to ask yourself: Is snacking serving me? Is it a tool to help me meet my goals or am I using it as crutch? Does it take me closer or further away from where I want to go?