Weighing In on the Research. Snacking: The New Norm
Snacking was once considered a novelty or a treat. Now, all-day snacking is the new normal. Not only are more Americans snacking than ever before, but they are snacking more frequently throughout the day. Over 90% of Americans are estimated to snack at least once a day and 50% report snacking two to three times daily. Among U.S. children and teens, 25% snack four or more times a day. For some people, snacking is replacing traditional daily meals.
Also, perceptions of snacking are changing. Snacking is losing its stigma as more people seek healthier snacks. In addition, research is focusing on snacking, as indicated below.
What is a snack?
There is no clear, consistent definition of a snack or snacking. While some consider a snack to be a food or beverage consumed between regular meals, others base it on the type, amount, or location of food or beverage consumed. For example, food intake may be referred to as a snack if it is smaller than a meal. In many cases, the lines between snacks and meals are blurred. The varied definitions of snacking make it difficult to interpret study findings and conclusions.
What motivates people to snack?
There are a variety of reasons why people turn to snacks. These include hunger, certain locations such as being away from home, social situations (e.g., special occasions), being distracted (e.g., watching TV), and to increase energy. Emotions such as boredom or stress, to reward oneself, or to satisfy a craving also lead people to snack.
Do motivations to snack influence snack choices?
Why people choose to snack may affect their snack food choices. Snacking when hungry tends to be associated with intake of healthy foods, whereas snacking when not hungry leads to intake of foods higher in fat, sugar, and sodium, and increased risk of weight gain. Consuming snacks at home or work is generally associated with intake of healthier snack foods than snacking at other locations. Being bored or distracted or multitasking while snacking may increase snacking even more or increase food intake at the next meal.
What is the health impact of snacking?
- Nutrient Intake. Snacks can improve nutrient intakes and help meet food group recommendations depending on the choice of foods and beverages consumed as snacks, the portion size of snacks, the time of day and frequency of snacking, and whether snacks replace meals. A recent study found that snacking patterns of U.S. children differ by age and time of day. Less healthy snacks are consumed as the teenage years approach and during the afternoon than in the morning. Researchers recommend offering children healthier snack choices in the afternoon to improve the nutritional quality of their diets.
- Weight Management. Snacks provide children and adults with approximately 25% of their daily calories. But whether or not snacking contributes to overweight and obesity is unclear and likely influenced by a variety of factors, such as the choice of foods and beverages consumed as snacks. When snacking behaviors were examined among more than 2,700 U.S. teenagers, researchers found that teens frequently snack, but snacking did not consistently contribute to being overweight unless high-calorie foods were consumed. When snacks are part of a well-planned, calorie-balanced diet, the risk of gaining weight by snacking is low.
- Learning and Memory. Consuming a midmorning snack at school for six months was found to improve cognitive functions such as learning and memory among students, even those coming from a higher socioeconomic background, according to an observational study of 12-to 13-year-old students.
How to make smart snack choices.
Well-planned healthy snacks from the basic food groups such as those recommended by USDA’s MyPlate can help close nutrient gaps, meet food group recommendations, take the edge off hunger, and potentially prevent overeating at meals.
Health professionals recommend nutrient-rich, health-promoting snacks, particularly foods and beverages that provide “nutrients of concern.” The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D as “nutrients of public health concern” because their intake is low enough to be associated with health concerns. Healthy snack options to help meet these nutrient needs include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk and milk products, and protein foods.
Why dairy is a smart snack.
Today’s consumers are looking for snacks that have good-for-you ingredients or health benefits, are convenient, portable, and affordable, and importantly, provide appealing taste and flavor. Dairy foods are nutrient rich, widely accessible, affordable, and appealing with many options to meet individual needs. Consuming dairy as a snack can be an opportunity to help meet daily recommended amounts of dairy and increase intake of nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. Dairy foods are also a great snack option for consumers who want to increase their intake of protein. Emerging research suggests that protein is associated with a feeling of fullness, which is important for weight management.
The dairy industry offers a variety of snack foods and beverages to meet consumers’ needs and continues to develop new grab-and-go dairy products with a health halo and taste like an indulgent treat. Check out the dairy case for milk, chocolate milk, yogurt, drinkable yogurt, smoothies, and cheeses to help meet your snack needs. For example, many cheeses, either alone or paired with other foods such as baby carrots, apple slices, pretzels, or whole wheat crackers, are pre-proportioned into single-serve packages.