Beat Back the Snack Attack!

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on June 20, 2012 · 0 comments

We’re a country of snackers and everywhere you turn there is an opportunity to eat – the newsstand, local deli, quick service restaurant, coffee shop, gas station, and even the drugstore has candy right near the register. An entire segment of the food industry has emerged to feed our snacking behavior with an endless array of tempting products. The industry holds its own annual trade show SNAXPO and we support them by spending over $61 billion yearly for snacks.

The good news is that we are starting to pay more attention to what we grab on-the-go. Snacking on cookies, bakery items, crackers and popcorn cakes is down, while yogurt, food bars and nuts have become the newest snacks of choice. 100-calorie packs are one of the hottest health trends today. We still can’t open a bag of chips and eat just 10, but we can buy 100-calorie packs of chips and eat just one bag. Regardless of how we achieve the outcome, eating smaller portions is a critical step to controlling weight.

It takes baby steps to make changes. We often recommend that people order an appetizer for their entrée. Couple that with a side salad plus low fat dressing, and split dessert with a friend and you’re on the right track. Eating well is doable; it just takes a little negotiation.

The snacks being developed today fall into 3 broad categories: healthy, tasty, and convenient. By voting with your buying power you have made it clear you are interested in healthy snacks that promote wellness or support weight control. This spurred the birth of 100-calorie packs, vitamin-fortified water, and light substitutes.

Next comes taste – no matter how good a food is for you, you’ll only buy it a second time if it tastes good. Taste trumps all. After taste you want variety. One good tasting energy bar must be followed by a brand extension of 10 more equally good tasting flavors before you become brand loyal. And you wondered why there were so many flavors of your favorite?

And last, portability – it seems no ones sits down to eat any longer. With hectic family schedules and longer working hours, snacks have replaced meals and in some cases are the only meals being served. This is one reason why yogurt is so popular – it fits in a cup holder, doesn’t spill, comes in many flavors, contains good-for-you nutrients, and is low to moderate in calories.

But, indulgent snacks have not disappeared. They still account for two-thirds of the snack market. To make them more appealing producers are developing smaller sizes and adding extras like calcium and antioxidants.

Bottom line: Do you need to snack? If you think of snacks as an extension of your meals, not an extra opportunity to eat, small frequent feedings are healthy. People who eat often – the old adage of eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full – parallels our natural need for energy throughout the day. If you usually eat cereal with milk, fruit, and coffee for breakfast, have coffee and fruit at home, then at for your mid-morning coffee break substitute a snack-size yogurt topped with crunchy cereal, drawing out breakfast into 2 mini meals. Have a small microwave cup of soup mid-afternoon as a prelude to dinner. Or save your after-dinner tea and cookies for a TV snack later in the night, instead of having a dessert plus a TV snack.

Small children with small stomachs need a couple of snacks a day. Active growing teenagers may need extra feedings. People with diabetes benefit from snacks. But in all these categories people are gaining too much weight, so the extra feedings are either too frequent or made up of high calorie, low nutrient choices.

Close to 25% of our daily calories come from snacks. And, processed snack items – energy bars, chips, meat sticks, snack cakes – are traditionally higher in sodium, fat and calories and lower in vitamins and minerals than unprocessed foods, like an old-fashioned apple. Next time you make a spontaneous snack purchase, take a second and ask yourself two questions:

• Am I hungry or did I just fall for a marketing gimmick?
• Will eating this food have any benefit?

You might be surprised at your answers.

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