“Snacking can be good for you,” swore a recent headline over at WaPo – followed by the caveat “if you make healthy choices.”

And countless readers promptly tuned out.

open bag of potato chipsAfter all, snacking tends to be an impulsive thing, and recent research demonstrates that impulsivity doesn’t exactly lend itself to making healthy choices.

Or consider the 2017 study in Maternal & Child Nutrition which looked at how snacking affected young children’s nutritional intake.

Snacks and sweets food category (i.e., cookies and pastries) were the leading sources of energy (44%), total fat (52%), and added sugars (53%) consumed during snacking occasions. Sweetened beverages (e.g., fruit and sport drinks) contributed 1-quarter of all added sugars obtained from snacks. Snacks contribute considerable amount of energy and nutrients to young children’s diets, with a heavy reliance on energy-dense foods and beverages.

Studies like these lead to titles like this one in a recent issue of Physiology & Behavior: “Snacking: A cause for concern.”

Even so, there are cases in which healthful snacking can be a good thing, which brings us back to the WaPo article we started with. There, the focus is primarily on older adults, who often experience a decline in appetite as they age. The reasons are many:

“Medication, depression, changes in taste and smell, and a drop in activity level can all cause a decline in appetite,” says Lauri Wright, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

When you eat less at one sitting, it can be difficult to get the energy, vitamins and minerals needed from three meals alone.

“Snacking — or eating six mini­meals a day instead of only three — can fill in the gaps,” Wright says.

And research bears this out.

For instance, one 2010 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked at the nutritional impact of snacking among adults aged 65 or older. More snacking, the researchers found, meant more vitamin A, C, and E, beta carotene, magnesium, copper, and potassium.

Such benefits, the authors suggested, “warrant [snacking’s] inclusion in older adults’ diet.”

A later study in the same journal looked at snacking’s effects among obese postmenopausal women enrolled in a weight loss program.

Women who reported two or more snacks per day vs one or no snacks per day had higher fiber intake…. Afternoon snackers had higher fruit and vegetable intake compared to non–afternoon-snackers…. These results suggest that snack meals can be a source for additional fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich foods.

That the quality of snacks matters a lot was reflected in yet another study in this journal. Here, women were directed to incorporate a twice-daily snack of either 100 calories of low-fat cookies or 100 calories of dried plums.

Incorporation of dried plums or low-fat cookies into the diet did not alter energy intake or weight; however, compared to cookies, dried plums promoted greater (P≤0.05) intake of fiber, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and calcium.

And that should surprise exactly no one.

fruit cheese nutsRegardless of your age, if you opt for snacking, we encourage you to reach for the good stuff – to have the good stuff on hand so it’s just as easy to grab some fresh fruit or nuts, say, as a candy bar or a bag of chips. It just takes a bit of planning ahead for when you are feeling impulsive – slicing veg ahead of time, say, or stocking up on small packets of jerky or olives or other easy-to-eat-on-the-go foods.

You can find loads of healthy snack ideas, tips, and recipes online. Here are a few good ones to get you started.

And the best thing? Once you get used to eating snacks that help instead of harm, you do tend to lose your taste for the less healthy stuff. It can take a little time – but then so does any habit.


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