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Never-Ending Snack Attacks: How to Turn Potential Perils Into Perks

January 25, 2010

An article called “Snack Time Never Ends” appeared this week in the Dining Section of the New York Times. Since I had been preparing a talk called “Feed Your Family Right: How to Choose Healthful Snacks” for parents of children at a local K-8 school, the timing of Jennifer Steinhauer’s article could not have been better. As a registered dietitian and mother of two boys, aged 11 and 7, I found the article to be extremely reflective of the 24/7 food-focused environment in which we live. It also highlighted the dire need for us as individuals and for our society as a whole to come together and do a better job of helping our nation’s children grow into healthy, fit adults.

Of course being surrounded with a vast array of snack food and beverage options at every turn makes mindful and moderate eating a challenge (to say the least) for many of us. Furthermore, huge portion sizes only add to the problem. Studies show if more we are offered/given more, we will consume more. Hopefully, the recent trend towards smaller portion sizes in convenience food and beverage products and restaurant foods can help us all eat less in 2010 and beyond.

As a registered dietitian, I have always encouraged people to include healthful snacks in their daily diet. In theory, in-between meal snacks can fill in food and nutrient gaps left at meals. For example, having one or more snacks each day can give many children, especially young ones who have tiny tummies and get full easily, more opportunities to fit in foods (and their nutrients) from key food groups (including fruits, vegetables, lean meats/beans, and low fat dairy foods).

But as we all know too well, snacking today has become more of a social ritual, or mindless habit than a nutritional opportunity. Little kids snack in their strollers, and many of us snack while walking and talking, while commuting or driving, or while being a spectator of some sporting event or other activity. Many of us snack not because we’re hungry, but simply because the sight, smell, and round-the-clock availability of food is more temptation than we can handle.

Does snacking cause obesity and overweight? We all know that over the past several decades, the rate at which children and adults tip scales has multiplied dramatically (though recent data reveals that these numbers are starting to level off –finally!). And while there is no one cause of obesity, snacking on high calorie, high sodium, sugary, or otherwise nutrient-poor foods and beverages can easily contribute to excess calorie intake and subsequent weight gain.

Studies also show that both kids and adults snack and graze more than ever before. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at national survey data collected since the late 70’s and found that on average, adults now have one extra snack per day than they did before. Furthermore, snack choices today are more energy dense (they have a lot of calories in a small portion) and tend to include nutrient-poor foods like salty chips or crackers, desserts, sugary beverages, and candies. Just like in children, snacks seem to be filling many of us adults out instead of filling in nutritional gaps.

So what should we do? Should we skip snacks and stick to breakfast, lunch, and dinner only? I believe that snacking can and should be part of a healthful diet for all of us. But snacking smart is key if we want to reap the potential benefits and minimize the perils.

Here are six of my favorite snack smart food rules my family and I try to follow; I’d love to hear your personal and family snack rules–together, they’re sure to help us all get a little bit healthier and better manage our weight.

1) Choose wisely. Anticipate snacks ahead of time and be sure to include plenty of foods and beverages from the key food groups (fruits, veggies, whole grains, low fat dairy foods, and lean sources of protein including nuts, seeds, and nut butters) on your weekly grocery list and in your cart. Choose all foods in their lowest fat and sugar form (examples include raw nuts, fat-free or low fat plain yogurt, dried fruit without added sugar, unsweetened apple sauce, whole grain/low sugar cereals, whole wheat crackers or unsalted pretzels, and low fat popcorn).

2) Find where the food (or beverage) fits. When choosing among processed and packaged foods, think about whether those foods come from any of the basic food groups. If they don’t fit neatly into any food group, chances are they won’t make the best snack choice and are more like desserts. Children and adults have between 150 to 300 extra or discretionary calories they can use for such extras–foods or beverages made with added sugars or fats (or in the case of adults, from alcoholic beverages)– so keep that in mind when making your daily snack choices.

3) Be a portion teller. My former grad school nutrition professor Lisa Young, author of the great book Portion Teller, urges consumers to learn how to eyeball portion sizes using common objects (mousepad, dice, baseball etc) to help them consume appropriate amounts whether at home or away from home. Keeping on hand small plastic cups and bowls, and small plastic baggies can also make it easy for you to pre-portion snacks and reduce the risk of overeating.

4) Be a selective snacker. When you’re out and about–whether at work, at a soccer game, at play practice, at a movie theater, or at a birthday party or sporting event–temptations may be tough to handle. Of course you can plan ahead and bring your own snacks; but let’s face it, sometimes you just really want a cupcake, a piece of birthday cake, movie popcorn, or some other indulgence! The key is that when you have these foods, make sure to adjust how much you eat that day overall–even by a few bites–and limit items made with extra fat or sugar to keep your total daily calorie intake in check.

5) Keep tools on hand to help you end the eating. Whether it’s chewing gum, breath strips, strong mints, or mouth wash, having a few of these on hand in your purse, bag, or desk drawer can not only leave your mouth feeling fresh and minty, but can help you resist the urge to have “just one more bite,” mindlessly snack, and reduce your risk of eating when not hungry.

6) Snack when you’re sitting down. Try to make sitting when you eat (preferably at a table) a habit, whether you’re home or on the go. You may find you actually eat less AND feel more satisfied.

1) Snack Time Never Ends, New York Times, January 20, 2010:
2) J Nutr. 2010 Feb;140(2):325-32. Epub 2009 Dec 2.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 25, 2010 5:00 pm

    I think your tip to anticipate snacks ahead of time is a great one. Many parents, I find, have a game plan for dinners and also lunches. Snacks, on the other hand, get thrown together at the last minute. The other problem with snacks for kids is that if you send just carrots or fruit for a snack and the other kids have “fun” snacks, it’s a hard sell. I find if I pack a snack ziploc of popcorn or crackers or pretzels and are stingy with the portion of the snack food (as you said a “portion teller”) and also send apple slices or celery sticks everyone is happy .
    I think snacking is an area that benefits from the strutured tips you presented. Great post.

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