As the tendency to consume food between meals increases, it is important that people understand how to build the snack foods on offer into a well balanced diet and lifestyle. Snacking is often perceived as being harmful and not conducive to healthy eating. Snacks, however, can play a useful role in a healthy balanced diet.
WHAT IS A SNACK?
People have different ideas as to exactly what constitutes a snack. One of the most widely accepted definitions is to say that a snack is any food consumed outside of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alternatively it is defined as a selection of small items eaten to replace traditional meals. Whatever the name and time of the snacks, they can be part of a healthy life style when people’s daily calorie intake is kept adequate but they eat more frequent, small meals. As you would expect, the consumption of snacks in addition to one’s appropriate daily calorie intake will lead to an increase in body weight.
The types of snacks vary within European countries, with some cultures preferring savoury foods such as pretzels, crisp breads, crisps, nuts and pizzas while others prefer yoghurts, other pot desserts, fruit and other sweet snacks like biscuits, cakes, chocolate, sugar confectionery, ice cream and drinks.
WHY DO WE SNACK?
Look around the world and you can see that the types of foods we eat and the times at which we eat them are strongly influenced not simply by hunger but also by cultural and social factors that vary from region to region and country to country. Traditions and religious habits, the working culture and levels of disposable income all contribute to shape what we consume and the number of times we eat each day.
Despite the differences in eating habits throughout European countries, one thing is consistent. Snacking is on the increase. The reason for a movement away from the traditional pattern of three meals a day can be attributed to a wide variety of factors. These include the breakdown of formal family meals, a pattern of eating that fits in with the busy lifestyles of many people today and the increased availability of foods that can easily be consumed while on the go.
Not only this, it now seems that our genes influence the overall amount of food and fluid we ingest and the number and timing of our meals. They also determine a person’s responsiveness to the environment. With less pressure to eat certain size meals at certain times of days, some people’s desire to snack may be a reflection and expression of their genetically-determined preferred style of eating. The genetically-determined sensitivity to stimuli present in the environment may also make some consumers more prone than others to eat in response to the availability of snack foods. Again, this can be accomplished without adverse consequences as long as energy intake matches expenditure.
SNACKING AND HEALTH
Does Snacking Make You Fat?
The usual perception is that snack foods are high in fat and sugar and are therefore “bad” and “make you fat”. There is no clear evidence to suggest that this is the case. From the research available to date, it appears that snacking does not promote obesity. This may be because those who snack frequently readjust the number of calories they eat at meal times so that their total daily calorie intake remains adequate and matches their needs. If they do have a higher energy intake, then probably weight is maintained because they are more active and are burning up the extra calories.
Surely Snacking Causes Tooth Decay?
Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that are naturally present in the mouth feeding on carbohydrate and producing acid that is capable of dissolving through the enamel of teeth; a process that causes cavities and subsequent decay. It is not just sugary carbohydrates found in sweets that feed the bacteria, but also sugars and starches found in fruit and honey, bread, chips and cakes. The length of time that food stays in the mouth as well as the gaps between eating and drinking occasions and whether or not teeth are cleaned and exposed regularly to fluoride play key roles in determining the development of tooth decay.
Experts have concluded that as a general rule, people with good oral hygiene who are exposed to fluoride, can allow themselves carbohydrates in meals plus two to three snacks or drinks a day.
Chewing sugar free gum after eating increases the flow of saliva in the mouth that helps to neutralise acids and reduce the risk of decay. Gums containing the sugar alcohol called xylitol have added benefits in preventing tooth decay through their ability to inhibit the growth of the oral bacterium Streptococcus mutans, thus reducing the quantity of sticky plaque that adheres to the teeth.
Fats and Sugars in Blood
Although a lot more research is needed into the area, some short-term studies reveal that eating frequently is associated with more favourable control of circulating levels of blood fats and blood sugar. One study has found that, under the same calorie intake conditions, eating six times a day compared with twice, significantly reduced the total cholesterol levels in blood as well as the LDL cholesterol. Raised LDL cholesterol levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. In another study it was discovered that when the calorie intake was kept the same but eating frequency increased, both blood sugar levels and amounts of the hormone insulin (needed to restore blood sugar levels to normal after meals) were reduced after eating.
THE BENEFITS OF SENSIBLE SNACKING
Between meal snacks can be an important part of a child’s diet. A study on 7-8 year old children in Edinburgh, Scotland showed that snacks contributed over a quarter of their daily energy and made important contributions to their protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre intakes. Not only this, some 15% of their calcium and a fifth of their vitamin C came from snack foods.
Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that consumers of snacks such as biscuits, and sugar or chocolate confectionery do not have an increased proportion of fat in their diet.
Intake of calcium in the first two decades of life is an important determinant of bone density in adult life and reduces susceptibility to osteoporosis developing in later years. Some snack foods are ideally placed to help increase calcium intakes, many of which are acceptable to and fit in with teenager lifestyles and taste. Yoghurts, fromage frais, low fat milk shakes, ice cream, calcium-enriched snack bars and fortified fruit juices, milk chocolate and cheese are examples of such foods.
Teenagers also need to consume good and regular amounts of iron to support growth and ensure adequate stores are laid down. Poor iron intakes can lead to low stores and the risk of iron deficiency anaemia, especially in teenage girls. Studies have shown that this condition leads not only to tiredness but affects concentration and thus potential achievement in schoolwork. Nuts, sunflower seeds and some dried fruit are good snack items that help to boost iron intakes. Taking them with vitamin C rich fruits and fruit juices can help to increase iron absorption by the body.
For very sporty people, snacks are a vital part of the daily diet. They provide a means of replacing carbohydrate stores in the muscles, which are used up during exercise. After strenuous physical activity such as a hard game of squash or football or a long run it takes a full 20 hours to replenish depleted muscle carbohydrate stores, although refueling takes place most rapidly within the first two hours of exercise. It is therefore important that around 60g of carbohydrate food is eaten within this time period.
Studies have also shown that consuming 25 -50g of carbohydrate foods about 30 minutes before training can help improve performance. It helps to maintain blood sugar levels and delay fatigue. Good pre-exercise snacks supplying 25g of carbohydrate include a 40g bar of chocolate, 35g of biscuits, one cereal or fruit bar, a large handful of raisins, a large ripe banana or 400ml of isotonic sports drink or 250ml of soft drinks.
Between meal snacks have been shown to account for around a third of energy consumed by people in athletic populations. Eating a series of small meals and snacks over the course of the day is a practical way for active people to increase energy intake and helps to reduce the potential discomfort experienced with very large, infrequent meals.
Although requirements for energy fall as people get older, the need for vitamins and minerals remains the same. In some cases, where digestive systems are less efficient, absorption may be impaired and nutritional needs are actually increased. Large meals tend to be off putting to elderly people who often prefer food to be in smaller portions. Nutritious snacks taken between meals can play an important role in maintaining good health and helping to reduce disease risk in the elderly. The Seneca study showed that those who ate more frequently had a better nutritional status.
Chocolate is a palatable and acceptable source of calcium, iron and energy as well as potentially valuable antioxidants. Yoghurts, fromage frais, chunks of cheese and pot desserts such as rice pudding and custard are good sources of calcium, fruit and fruit juice drinks can improve vitamin C intakes. Grapefruit and bananas provide potassium; crisps are a source of both vitamin C and fibre while nuts supply protein, essential fats, iron and calcium. Elderly people also need fibre in their diet to promote good digestive health and whole grain and cereal based foods, fruits and vegetables can supply these.
Drinks and Fluid Intake
Everyone needs to consume around 2 litres of fluid a day and more for those who are active or live in a hot environment. We get some fluid from foods but most from beverages. It is important for all age groups that adequate fluids are consumed throughout the day to prevent dehydration which otherwise leads to tiredness, an inability to concentrate and, potentially, mental confusion. The elderly and children under 12 are particularly prone to dehydration.
Tap water is the most obvious source of fluid in most European countries, although the French and increasingly others prefer bottled waters. This said, soft drinks, tea, coffee, milk and fruit juices all help to provide the fluids we need.
Drinks can add significant amounts of nutrients to the diet with “liquid snacks” making valuable contributions to overall nutritional status. Cappuccinos and milk shakes supply protein and calcium along with vitamins A and D. Fruit juices can boost vitamin C and other vitamin intakes, vegetable juices contain beta-carotene and lycopene and tea and hot chocolate drinks provide antioxidant flavonoids. Just as people are advised to eat a varied diet, a good variety is also the best option when it comes to drinks.
It is especially important for athletes and those who exercise regularly to maintain good fluid balance. To this end, people should be aware that approximately one extra litre of fluid is needed for every hour of exercise undertaken. Isotonic drinks are useful for sporty people who need to rapidly replace fluids to maintain hydration. Other sports and soft drinks can also provide an important source of carbohydrate to help sustain performance.
Snacking is becoming a way of life with many people. In some countries the average eating frequency is around 6-7 occasions per day. There is no evidence to suggest that snacking causes obesity. Also, sensible snacking has no adverse effect on the overall nutritional content of the diet whether it is the fat, carbohydrate or protein content or the intake of vitamins and minerals.
Short-term studies show that more favourable blood fat and sugar controls are achieved in healthy individuals who eat frequently. There is no substitute for good oral hygiene and regular use of fluoride to reduce risk of tooth decay whether one eats on 3 or 6 meal occasions.
For many people, snack foods are a convenient means of meeting their daily nutritional requirements. Snacking and “foods on the go” are here to stay and it is important to realise that sensible choices can be made in the context of a healthy, active lifestyle.
Reviewed for Eufic by Dr. France Bellisle