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Americans’ propensity to snack has gotten out of control

Researchers have shed light on the considerable impact of snacking on the diet of U.S. adults. The findings suggest that snacks constitute nearly a quarter of daily calories for American adults and are a significant source of added sugar.

Magnitude of American snacking

The research, which involved an analysis of data from over 20,000 individuals, revealed that Americans average about 400 to 500 calories from snacks each day. This calorie count often surpasses what is consumed at breakfast and is primarily composed of items with little nutritional value.

Christopher Taylor, a senior study author and professor of medical dietetics at The Ohio State University, expressed surprise at the magnitude of the impact of snacking.

“Snacks are contributing a meal’s worth of intake to what we eat without it actually being a meal,” Taylor explained.

He highlighted that unlike planned meals, snacks often consist of carbohydrates, sugars, and lack essential nutrients like protein, fruits, and vegetables.

“You know what dinner is going to be: a protein, a side dish or two. But if you eat a meal of what you eat for snacks, it becomes a completely different scenario of, generally, carbohydrates, sugars, not much protein, not much fruit, not a vegetable. So it’s not a fully well-rounded meal,” said Taylor.

Snacking demographics

The study also noted differences in snacking habits among people with varying levels of blood glucose control. Participants who were managing their type 2 diabetes tended to eat fewer sugary foods and snacked less overall compared to those without diabetes or with prediabetes.

Taylor pointed out the effectiveness of diabetes education but suggested expanding such education to those at risk of diabetes and even to people with normal blood glucose levels. The goal is to improve dietary behaviors before the onset of chronic diseases.

“Diabetes education looks like it’s working, but we might need to bump education back to people who are at risk for diabetes and even to people with normal blood glucose levels to start improving dietary behaviors before people develop chronic disease,” Taylor said.

The researchers analyzed data from 23,708 U.S. adults aged over 30, gathered between 2005 and 2016 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This survey includes detailed 24-hour dietary recalls from each participant.

The study found that snacks accounted for 19.5% to 22.4% of total energy intake among the survey sample. However, these snacks provided minimal nutritional quality. The snacks primarily consisted of convenience foods, sweets, and sugary beverages, with healthier options like fruits, grains, and vegetables being less common.

The bigger picture of snacking

Taylor emphasized the importance of understanding the total dietary picture rather than focusing solely on individual foods. He argued that removing added sugars or refined grains is not sufficient; it’s crucial to consider what is being substituted in their place.

“We need to go from just less added sugar to healthier snacking patterns,” he said. “We’ve gotten to a point of demonizing individual foods, but we have to look at the total picture. Removing added sugars won’t automatically make the vitamin C, vitamin D, phosphorus and iron better. And if we take out refined grains, we lose nutrients that come with fortification,” Taylor said.

The quality of these substitutes is as important as the removal of unhealthy items. “When you take something out, you have to put something back in, and the substitution becomes just as important as the removal.”

Americans and the future of snacking

The study prompts a reevaluation of snacking habits. Taylor suggests looking at the entire day’s diet to determine if snacks are meeting nutritional needs.

“Especially during the holidays, it’s all about the environment and what you have available, and planning accordingly. And it’s about shopping behavior: What do we have in the home?” he said.

He also highlighted the role of the environment, shopping behaviors, and planning in shaping snacking choices. Unlike meals, snacks are often unplanned, leading people to rely on what’s readily available, which may not be the healthiest option.

“We think about what we’re going to pack for lunch and cook for dinner. But we don’t plan that way for our snacks. So then you’re at the mercy of what’s available in your environment.”

In summary, this study underlines the significant role of snacks in the American diet and their impact on overall nutritional intake. It points to the need for broader dietary education and a more holistic approach to snacking, considering not just the reduction of harmful components but also the addition of nutritious alternatives.

The study was published recently in PLOS Global Public Health.


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