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Snacking: The modern habit that could be putting your health and waistline at risk

Cakes, biscuits and energy bars are, for many people, just staples of everyday life—the snacks that keep us going through the day. But most people don’t realise just how easy it is to over-consume while snacking. Women are advised by health authorities to consume 8000 kilojoules a day, and men 10,000. UK guidelines suggest a balance of 1700 kilojoules for breakfast, 2500 kilojoules for lunch and 2500 kilojoules for the evening meal—leaving the remainder for drinks and healthy snacks.

But research from the Behaviour Insight Team found that adults may be consuming an average of 12,500 kilojoules a day without realising, partly due to snacking. This is particularly significant given the rise in obesity in children and the fact that 64 per cent of young people snack outside of mealtimes, with the majority of these snacks being high in fat, sugar and salt.

Snack attack

According to a recent paper, there are many reasons why people snack. It could be down to hunger and the need to eat, or more “distracted eating”—eating too much food while playing a game or watching TV. Many people also eat through habit or association, such as at the cinema or when meeting a friend for coffee and cake.

The wide range of snacks available to shoppers is now evident in all outlets—in stores, transport hubs and vending machines. But rarely are these snacks of the healthy variety. And these can often tip daily kilojoules into excess without people realising, which can lead to weight gain.

But rather than banning snacking at public transport hubs altogether—as has been suggested by some health experts—food labelling, education and “choice architecture” (that is, the way food is displayed to enable healthier choices) should be implemented more widely to help nudge people in the right direction.

This is important, because, generally, if people are hungry, they eat what is there. So providing healthy options at an affordable price should help people make better choices. Indeed, when it comes to eating healthy, it’s recommended people plan ahead and rethink their portion sizes in a bid to cut out excessive eating.

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Feeling peckish?

Snacking today is just a normal part of eating for many. Indeed, the food industry has lured people into believing they cannot sustain themselves without the input of several hundred kilojoules between meals—a whole “snack industry” has been established.

Eating habits have also drastically changed over the years, with people now more likely to eat out while consuming less home-cooked food. Indeed, according to The National Food Survey, in the 1950s, most households didn’t eat out. Compare this with survey results from 1983, by which time most people ate three meals a week outside their home.

Today, traditional family meals have been largely replaced by meals in front of the TV and various other screens. Home cooking has also declined and been replaced by ready meals. People now also eat out more often, order takeaway meals regularly and snack in between meals.

Combine this with a food industry that is selling for the benefit of the bottom line and not the health of the individual, and it’s not surprising that unhealthy food culture and snacking is now seen as normal.

But small swaps can make a big difference in overall kilojoules and health outcomes. So next time you’re peckish, consider an alternative: a banana, a small handful of nuts or a plain low-fat yoghurt. These options will fill you up and provide nutrients, rather than the added sugar and fat you don’t need in your diet.


Ruth Whiteside is a senior lecturer in public health nutrition at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom.

The original version of this article is from The Conversation website and appears here under a Creative Commons licence.

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