By Dr Anna Gryka-MacPhail, Policy Officer, Obesity Action Scotland

Snacks vs. healthy snacks

Some people when asked what a snack is would point to crisps, biscuits, pastries or chocolate bars. Such products are heavy on calories but poor in important nutrients and were named ‘discretionary’ by Food Standards Scotland. We consume up to a fifth of energy from these products. This, together with the fact that on average we eat excess of 200-300 kcal every day, suggests a simple action: #sackthesnack. A 2015 survey found that more than half of the people would prefer to cut down on snacks.

However, evidence concerning the effects of snack foods on obesity has been mixed. This is because studies that examined these effects did not always account for satiety, dietary quality or portion size of the snacks. And not all snacks are unhealthy, think nuts, seeds, fruit, veg, or yogurt. Research showed that whole foods high in protein, fibre, and whole grains enhance satiety when consumed as snacks. As we do not eat enough of fibre, wholegrain, fruit or veg in Scotland, such snacks should be welcome. 

The only campaigners calling for ditching even healthy snacks may be our teeth. For teeth the less frequently we eat, the better. This is because every time we eat or drink, they are likely to be exposed to acid and sugar. Good news is that healthy eating advice and dental health advice can be combined, for example to eat sour or sweet fruit at meal times rather than between.

Snacking culture

Dan Parker, a reformed junk food marketing professional and current chief executive of the Living Loud charity, keeps repeating that snacking was invented by food industry. If it was, then the idea was eagerly picked up by most. If you have been around for a few decades, you will know that foods that used to be treats (i.e. cake or chocolate) are now common snacks and so easy to ‘grab’.

Recommendations on snacking

While the UK dietary advice (Eatwell Guide) does not make snack recommendation, Public Health England suggests having 400 kcal for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for dinner, leaving around 400 kcal for healthier snacks and drinks. Recommendations from other countries unanimously discourage snacking on foods high in sugar, salt and fat and either discourage snacking altogether or recommend healthy snacks only.

What to do

Statistics show that most snacks we consume in Scotland are unhealthy. Sacking them is definitely a good move. To cut down on snacking is important to recognise individual reasons for it. If you’re hungry, then try healthier options such as nuts. If it’s related to low mood then think of what else could make you feel better: upbeat music or a chat to a friend? And if you snack just because snacks are about and handy, it may be worth making sure you don’t have any in the kitchen cupboards or workplace kitchen. And if it’s just a habit, then replace it with another one – a walk in the fresh air is a great candidate.

1  Food Standards Scotland (2015) Attitudes to Diet and Health in Scotland

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4863261/pdf/an009571.pdf

Images: Unsplash

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