If we weren’t before, we are now officially a nation of snackers. According to the largest-ever consumer survey into what we eat between meals – for which some 11,000 people were quizzed – Brits are the largest snackers in Europe, eating four times more crisps than the French or Italians.
The average Brit now eats crisps, nuts or popcorn seven times a week. Australians also love a snack – with about two thirds eating between meals.
In the last two years alone, snacking on nuts has risen by almost 25 per cent, with the fastest growth area among men over 45.
When it comes to women between the ages of 25 and 44, snacking on popcorn is up 45.7 per cent from 2014.
If that was enough food for thought, another survey – this time by YouGov – has revealed that more than half of British women (54 per cent) now snack twice a day, but that four-fifths (84 per cent) instantly feel guilty about doing it.
No wonder we are known as “generation graze”.
Yet hunger used to be an ordinary part of the day. So many of us grew up with three meals a day, and nothing in between. How did we get to this point of needing to be permanently sated – and is it good for us?
“In today’s society, there’s so much pressure to look good and eat right,” says GP Dr Pixie McKenna. “But in reality, leading such busy lives means snacking is inevitable. It’s important to fuel our bodies, especially if we’re hungry,”
Dr McKenna adds: “I have never been a regular snacker. I mix it up, depending on what I’m doing. When I’m in the clinic, I can often have back-to-back appointments, which doesn’t give me time to snack.”
But she admits when she does grab an extra bite between meals, she is caught – like so many others – feeling bad. “That guilt really resonates with me,” she says, “It’s really difficult to change your perspective when it is so ingrained in today’s society that snacking equals unhealthy.”
Dr McKenna, 46, is, as viewers know, in excellent shape and does not look like someone who is packing away extra Mars bars all day long. Growing up in Cork in the Seventies, she admits hers was a traditional three-meals-a-day household – “with no biscuit barrel sitting on the kitchen worktop”, she says.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Dr McKenna, like many working women, keeps a supply of snacks in her desk for “morning and afternoon pick-me-ups”.
As a busy doctor and a working mum to Darcy, six, her days are outrageously long. “I might have breakfast at 6am and not sit down to dinner until 8pm. I’m always on the go,” she says.
“When I was younger, I always mentally associated snacking with guilt, and being too full to eat a healthy meal later on. This is primarily because my brain is hard-wired to interpret the word ‘snack’ as free rein to eat something ridiculously naughty.”
But, she points out, maybe it’s time to change our approach. “It’s incredible that women still feel so much guilt about what essentially, is fuelling our bodies, and sustaining our day,” she says.
Almost one fifth (19 per cent) of women in the survey commissioned by healthy snack food brand The Food Doctor said they had skipped meals because they had snacked during the day.
“It saddens me that we put this pressure on ourselves, and I’d never advise that women skip meals, as even skipping one meal causes blood sugar levels to dive,” Dr McKenna says. “Without a new supply of calories, your body shifts into starvation mode in an effort to conserve energy, so your metabolism slows and the food that you eventually do take in isn’t burned off very efficiently.
“That’s why eating smaller, healthier meals as well as snacks throughout the day is much better, as they’ll keep you going, and we need this in our busy lives.”
However, some doctors advise against constantly topping up the internal tank. One concern is that keeping blood sugars constantly raised by snacking could mean our insulin levels stay artificially high, helping to raise the risk of developing insulin resistance.
Dr McKenna is unconvinced. “There are a whole host of factors involved in insulin resistance, so to cite snacking as a direct cause of type 2 diabetes is a bit of a stretch,” she says. “We know excess weight and inactivity are key drivers in insulin resistance so these should have the greatest prominence in our drive to reduce our rates of type 2 diabetes.”
A study in the journal Hepatology found that, compared with three large meals a day, frequent snacks were more likely to cause cholesterol stores in the liver to rise along with the accumulation of harmful fat around the waist. And an experiment at Rush University Medical Centre, Chicago, found if people were made to wait for a snack, they made healthier choices. So is instant gratification a good thing?
Dr McKenna says: “I think it is easy to find a study to support the pros and cons of snacking. The reality is people snack, so our goal should be that we make these snacks both healthy and delicious.”
Not that she has a problem with appetite. “There is nothing wrong with being hungry – it’s the whole premise on which fasting diets were based on,” she says. “However, our nutritional goals need to be tailored to our daily lives, and for one person, being hungry might be acceptable yet wholly intolerable to another. I personally don’t like being hungry, and I doubt many people do.”
But step back from those salt and vinegar crisps. Not all snacks are equal, says the doctor. “Common sense is key, and will tell you that a healthy snack, such as a handful of trail mix, is much healthier than, say, a family-size bag of crisps,” she says. So what can we eat without guilt? “A good snack in the morning might be a toasted pitta bread, with some peanut butter spread on top,” she says.
“In the afternoon, try trail or seed mix. I find they’re great to snack on between appointments and a good source of fibre.” She recommends bananas – “nature’s fast food” – for when you’ve just had a workout.
And what to avoid? “Chocolate digestives – they’re the devil’s work, because you can never eat only one.”
Don’t eat that – eat this instead
Swap chocolate digestives for… fig rolls
Just one chocolate digestive contains almost as many calories as a packet of Quavers. Instead, go for fig rolls: they have less added sugar than most other biscuits and a lower saturated fat content. Also, three fig rolls will provide 15 per cent of your recommended daily intake of dietary fibre.
Swap a bag of chips for… rice cakes
If it’s a savoury crunch you’re after, go for something air-popped. At 70 calories a go, rice cakes are lower in fat than potato crisps, and the wholegrain varieties will make you feel fuller for longer. Check the label first – some varieties contain additives or added flavourings and sugar – or go for a bag of plain popcorn.
Swap peanuts for… pumpkin seeds
Unlike peanuts, which are high in saturated fat and sodium (which increases your blood pressure and risk of heart disease), pumpkin seeds are practically a superfood: high in dietary fibre, which boosts healthy digestion, as well as iron for energy and zinc, which boosts your immunity system.
The Telegraph, London
The Daily Telegraph