Snacking is huge nowadays and is a social norm. Something we don’t pause to question. But is it doing you any real good? That is the question to noodle (pun intended). Are you snacking for true reasons (i.e., genuine hunger) or is it because of some underlying fears (e.g., fear of being hungry/undernourished, fear of not enough time, fear of not pleasing others, fear of missing out, or fear of dealing with challenging emotions)?
My argument is that we don’t need to snack. I know this is a controversial statement that contradicts what some diet and fitness gurus promote for steady blood sugar, weight loss, and health. But from my observations, many people are snacking out of some (likely) unconscious fear (such as the examples above), and in these cases snacking does more harm than good because the motivations behind it aren’t rooted in reality of the situation.
So, let’s take a closer look at the snacking trend on the whole and inquire into some of the beliefs that tend to precipitate the snacking habit.
Despite its ubiquity today, the “snack-time all the time” phenomenon, as writer Karen Le Billon phrased it, hasn’t been around for a very long time. Snacking rates started to climb back in the 1970s, which correlates with the rise in the processed food industry and modern food marketing. We have increasingly shifted away from eating just three main meals a day in favour of mini meals throughout the day and eating between meals. Consequently, snacking is now viewed as an acceptable everyday behaviour, whereas before it was done as an occasional treat that was mostly for children. A 2015 Mintel report found that 94% of U.S. adults are snacking at least once per day, with more than half of them snacking two or three times a day (Mintel, 2015). Whereas prior to the 1970s, adults didn’t really snack at all and about three-quarters of children snacked, on average, just once per day – with a quarter of them not snacking at all (Le Billon, 2014). In terms of time between eating occasions, in 1977, the average time in the U.S. was 4.4 hours for adults. By 2006, the time between eating went down to 3.5 hours – shortened by almost a full hour (Wilson, 2015).
The Big Food industry grasped the potential of this phenomenon early on and has done a lot to cultivate it even further over the years. Snacking is big business and its growing. According to a recent Nielsen snacking report, worldwide snack sales totaled $374 billion as of 2014 and are steadily increasing year-over-year (Nielsen, 2014). This makes snacking an attractive area of focus for these companies in order to generate bigger profits. Thus, it benefits them to promote the idea that snacking all the time is normal. And to quote that Nielsen report: “Since many snack purchases are unplanned, it makes good business sense to have snacks always at the ready and within arm’s reach” (Nielsen, 2014).
It makes good business sense, but does it make good sense for you to always have “snacks at the ready”?
Each of us has an innate sense of what genuine hunger/fullness is. This innate sense may become muddled as we go through life and are exposed to different beliefs and conditioning. After awhile, we forget what being truly hungry feels like. It is estimated that a person can survive at least 30 days without eating, coupled with the abundance of food we’re blessed with here in North America, often means that snacking is rarely motivated by a genuine sense of hunger. However, it can be motivated by the fear of being hungry.
"Being mildly hungry is okay – there is nothing wrong with it."
Being mildly hungry is okay – there is nothing wrong with it. But we unquestioningly buy into the belief that being hungry must be avoided at all cost. This is something we may have picked up as children if our parents were “fear feeding” us – fear at the thought of their children feeling hungry (Le Billon, 2014). We don’t allow ourselves to experience the sensation of hunger and pre-emptively fill-up on snacks before we can get to that point. This is snacking based on a fear.
As children, we may have also learned that cleaning off our plates even when we’re already full is pleasing to others (i.e., our parents usually). This can manifest in adulthood as snacking when you’re not hungry just to keep a friend company or saying “yes” to a snack to avoid being perceived as rude by others. Snacking for people’s approval and for a sense of belonging.
Going hand-in-hand with snacking to avoid hunger is snacking based on the belief that you aren’t getting enough nutrients and need to close the nutrition gaps via snacks. If you are eating three meals that are nutrient-dense (focused on real, good-quality, organic, and whole or minimally processed foods) and leave you feeling satisfied, not stuffed, then for most people this is enough. And you are getting enough protein, despite the insistence that you are not from food marketers (Health Canada reports that nearly 100% of Canadian adults consume protein in quantities within its Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range). Even “healthy” snacking can lead to the development of bad eating habits because this random way of eating fosters overeating and snacking on impulse. Bottom line being that if you are eating when you’re not hungry you will be messing with your internal regulation abilities, you are overeating (some reports state we’re eating 500 calories more since 1977, mostly coming from snacks), it is taxing to your digestive system (see why I say this here), and you could be increasing your risk of developing emotional eating patterns too (Wilson, 2015).
Meanwhile, something else we may think we’re starving for is time. Eating proper sit-down meals is often sacrificed because we think there is a lack of time. We are an overscheduled bunch who don’t hesitate to skip meals, replacing them with convenient snacks. As Harry Blazer from market research firm NDP group affirms, “The snack food is becoming the meal” as we’re becoming adept at “assembling snack foods to collectively equal a meal” (Egan, 2016). This method of snacking in a hurry is not conducive to eating well either.
Lastly, and this is a big one, there is emotional snacking. We may turn to snacking as a coping or distraction mechanism when we’re facing challenging and uncomfortable emotions, like stress, sadness, and boredom. We may eventually find that we need to snack as a way to relax and feel good – albeit for a brief amount of time. Food is also a way to tap into our fond memories. Eating a certain food can bring us right back to those good times. When we’re feeling nostalgic, we can look to food to fulfill this yearning. Food marketers for brands like Lucky Charms realize this sense of nostalgia is growing in Millennials, and so they are promoting sugary breakfast cereals as snacks (you’ll see what I mean here). You can’t bring your youth back through a bowl of Froot Loops my friend.
"Start investigating your beliefs about snacking."
What I want you to take away from this is an inquiring mind when it comes to any of your snacking tendencies. Start investigating your beliefs about snacking. In an honest and open way, ask yourself what you believe about it as the occasion arises and assess if it is valid or not. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I have to eat a snack before I go do my activities even though I’m not hungry because I’ll be stuck somewhere without food.” Can you really know that’s true that you’ll be stuck without food and starve? Is it true that you’d starve after a few hours without food? Deflate any exaggerated thoughts. Become an observer of these thoughts and question them instead of blindly believing them. As the Buddhist teaching goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
What are your thoughts and opinions about snacking? Let’s start a discussion below..
References (and my many thanks to):
“A Snacking Nation: 94% of Americans Snack Daily.” Mintel Press Office, July 2015, http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/a-snacking-nation-94-of-americans-snack-daily
“Do Canadian Adults Meet Their Nutrient Requirements Through Food Intake Alone?” Health Canada, March 2012, https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-nutrition-surveillance/health-nutrition-surveys/canadian-community-health-survey-cchs/canadian-adults-meet-their-nutrient-requirements-through-food-intake-alone-health-canada-2012.html
Egan, Sophie. Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. (http://www.sophieegan.com/)
Le Billon, Karen. Getting to Yum. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014. (https://karenlebillon.com/)
“Nielsen Global Snacking Report” The Nielsen Company, September 2014, http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/kr/docs/global-report/2014/Nielsen%20Global%20Snacking%20Report%20September%202014.pdf
Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2015. (http://beewilson.squarespace.com/artists/#/julien-clarke/)