When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, snacks were occasional treats, and providing them was certainly not my parents’ priority. Nowadays, though, snacks are not just routine but often required; we parents are asked to supply snacks for sports-team practices, scout meetings and preschool parties. On school days, good parents pack a mid-morning snack and provide another for their kids to devour after school.
And snacks aren’t just for kids. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina who has spent many years studying snacking, says eating outside of mealtimes has been rising for decades among both adults and children.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
Writes the Eat, Drink & Be Healthy column and Lean & Fit e-newsletter, and blogs for The Checkup.
Popkin found, in separate studies he authored with Carmen Piernas and published in 2010, that the number of snacks children eat daily increased from slightly less than two in 1989-91 to three in 2003-06 and that adults moved from eating about 1.26 snacks daily in 1977-78 to 2.23 in 2003-06. The studies showed that snacking accounts for about 24 percent of adults’ daily caloric intake and more than 27 percent of children’s.
Popkin and other scientists are busy sorting out the health implications of all that snacking. In particular, snacking’s effect on our weight has not been made clear. Although it might seem obvious that snacks have contributed mightily to obesity, which has risen in the same period, research has yet to establish snacking as a major driver of the obesity epidemic.
Still, some data suggest it might be. In a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine last month, Popkin and researcher Kiyah J. Duffey found that the increasing number of “eating occasions” — snacks plus meals — during the day has probably played a big role in padding our middles in recent decades. The study found that from 1977-78 to 2003-06, adults added an average of 570 calories to their daily diet. In earlier years, increased portion sizes accounted for far more of those added calories than snacks did, but in later years, extra eating occasions became the leading contributor of calories.
Part of the problem is that we’re not always aware of how much we’re snacking. Marisa Moore, an Atlanta-based dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she regularly questions new clients about their snack habits. “If they don’t divulge that information, I always ask, because people often forget. They leave out that trip to the vending machine” when describing their daily diet, “not because they’re trying to deceive me but because they just tend to overlook” their snacks.
That disconnect may stem in part from the need to come up with a clear definition of “snack.” Is a snack a certain kind of food, or a food eaten at a certain time of day? Is it a meal containing a small number of calories? Researchers haven’t agreed.
Though the first recorded use of the word “snack” to refer to a bit of food eaten outside mealtime was in 1757, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we don’t have data about the incidence of snacking until the 1960s. Snacking began to take hold in the United States in the 1970s, Popkin says, and really took off in the ’80s and ’90s.