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Attack Your Snacks
Written by March 4, 2010

Rachel Huber, MPH, RD

Associate Director of Education
The Cooper Institute

energy balance
physical activity
Attack Your Snacks

Eating on the run. Dashboard dining.  Surfing and snarfing.  Viewing and chewing.  These are all ways to describe our modern eating patterns.  Especially our snacking habits.  Research suggests we are doing a lot more of that today than 30 years ago.  I know, it doesn’t surprise you given our hectic lives.  But do you know just how much we snack?  Read on.

Studying Snacking

Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill compiled data from four very large national nutrition surveys done between 1977 and 20061.  I won’t go into the complicated methodology but suffice it to say the scientists took great pains to sort through the food intake of nearly 45,000 adults over the age of 18.  In so doing, they were very careful to define snacks as eating occasions separate from meals.  Thus, foods commonly thought of as “snack” foods (e.g., potato chips) that were eaten as part of a meal were counted in the meal calculations.  The end result was a data set that had information on the three main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and snacks.

So how much do we snack? According to this study, a lot. Nearly all (97%) American adults eat snacks in a two-day period.  That’s up from 71% in 1977.  Daily snackers increased in the same period from 42% to 78%.  Also, we have nearly doubled the number of snacks per day (1.3 in 1977 to 2.2 in 2006).  But here is the kicker.  Each snack has increased from 144 to 226 calories and our total daily snacking calories have increased from 357 to a whopping 579 calories.  That’s a 64% increase! Today, snacking accounts for 24% of our total daily calorie intake. 

Are you ready for more bad news?  Our top 5 sources of snack calories are desserts, salty snacks, other snacks, sweetened beverages, and juices/fruit.  Low- and high-fat snacks increased the most since 1977 with, unfortunately, milk/dairy and juices/fruit dropping over the same time period.

So where did all those extra snack calories go?  Likely right to our waistlines because we have not increased our physical activity in the last 30 years to balance out the extra calories. 

Make Snacking Work

We are not likely to change our grab and go, fast-paced lives.  So you need to make snacking work to your advantage.  For example, most people don’t eat enough fruit, vegetables, and/or dairy products.  So instead of reaching for a Snickers bar, choose:

• Fresh, frozen, or dried fruit or fruit canned in fruit juices
• Fresh vegetables such as carrot sticks, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.
• Low-fat or nonfat yogurt and cheese

You’ll satisfy your need for a snack plus boost your nutrient intake with these nutritious options.  Also, check out our earlier blog on 100 calories food portions.  Eating two to three of these 100 calorie options a day is a vast improvement over the nearly 600 calories we are currently snarfing down. 

1 Piernas C and Popkin BM.  Snacking increased among U.S. Adults between 1977-2006.  Journal of Nutrition.  2010;140:325-332.

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