It is not uncommon for people to become hungry in between meals. Eating a small snack may be just what is needed to remain satiated. According to a 2014 article in Physiology & Behavior, snacking is a widespread activity. “Snacking, defined as eating outside of main meals, is a very common behavior, as established by numerous cross-sectional and longitudinal studies carried out in various areas of the world.” 1
But, not all snacks have equal nutritional value. In fact, some snacks, such as those with trans fats (see the entry on trans fats), negatively impact the body, especially if they are a frequent part of the diet. On the other hand, simple snacks, such as a piece of fruit, are low in calories and full of nutrients. However, fruit is not always readily available. And, people who are really hungry may reach for a snack that is filled with fat, sugar, and salt. It is well known that those types of snacks negatively impact the body and contribute to the development of body fat and excess weight.
In a study published in 2014 in the Journal of School Health, researchers from the University of South Carolina in Columbia wondered if the snacks served in after-school programs could be improved in a cost-effective manner. Why is this important? According to the researchers, throughout the United States, after-school programs care for over eight million children. The cohort consisted of four large after-school programs, serving about 500 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years. During the 18-week preintervention phase, the students were fed low-nutrient-density salty snacks, sugar-sweetened drinks, and desserts; during the 7-week postintervention phase, the students ate fruits and vegetables, with no sugar-sweetened beverages or desserts. Thanks to the involvement of a grocery chain that discounted food prices, the after-school programs actually improved the healthfulness of their snacks while reducing their costs. The researchers noted that their findings “demonstrated that engaging community grocery stores in a collaborative partnership to provide discounted prices on healthful snacks can result in sizeable price reductions for fruits and vegetables.” The researchers added that these changes could be replicated in other locations, and such partnerships could have an impact on the millions of children who attend these programs. 3
In a study published in 2012 in Appetite, researchers from Belgium wanted to learn more about the association between container size and the amount of snack food that is consumed. The cohort consisted of 88 undergraduate students who regularly ate a snack in the afternoon. While they watched a television show, all of the participants were served M&M’s for consumption in cubicles. They were given either a medium portion in a small container or a medium portion in a large container or a large portion in a large container. The researchers found the participants who consumed the food in the large container ate considerably more. According to the researchers, “the important message emerging from this research is that CS [container size] influences food intake for high-energy food even when PS [portion size] is kept constant.” So, people eat more when food is placed in larger containers. “As a matter of fact, calories intake increased by more than 100% when increasing CS by 300%.” 5 The message from this trial is clear. Place your snack in a smaller container. 6
In a qualitative study published in 2013 in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from Iran evaluated the types of snacks middle-school students obtained from their cafeterias. They also suggested ways in which the schools could improve these snacks. The cohort consisted of 240 students between the ages of 12 and 15 years from 12 middle schools in Tehran. Information was obtained during small focus-group discussions. Because adolescents spend so much of their day at school, the cafeteria becomes “one of the major sources of providing their daily nutritional needs.” Interestingly, over half the students thought that snack consumption was “necessary.” The students reported some of the benefits of snacking, such as providing energy and increasing intelligence, and they said that their most frequently consumed snacks were “cookies, fruits, bread and cheese, sandwiches, chocolate milk, fruit juices, and potato chips.” Students purchased these foods because they were the items that the cafeteria sold. The researchers advised making more nutritional choices available. “Providing favorable, nutritious and healthy snacks, available in cafeterias, is an approach that may affect their food habits.” 7
In a study published in 2014 in Childhood Obesity, researchers from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wanted to learn more about the type of snacks that were available at youth sports games such as baseball. Observations were made at a youth baseball field in a small town in northwest North Carolina. There were six teams of boys between the ages of 8 and 11 years. A total of 12 games were randomly observed throughout the six-week season. By the end of the observation period, food and beverage information was obtained for 179 adults and 83 children who attended the games as well as 51 youth players. The results contained 102 snacks and 82 beverages. The team snacks, which were provided by parents, included French fries, chips, crackers, popcorn, candy, and cookies. Parents also arrived with healthier alternatives such as granola bars and peanuts. Team members drank water, regular and diet soda, sugar-sweetened sport drinks, and milk shakes. The vast majority of the food consumed by spectators was purchased from a concession stand; generally, the offerings had no nutritional value. “Most food consumed by both parents and children were considered unhealthy snack items.” The researchers concluded that the ballpark “could be considered an obesigenic [fosters excessive weight] environment, despite the focus on physical activity and sport participation.” 8
A study published in 2009 in Cadernos de Saúde Pública (Reports in Public Health) also addressed barriers to healthy snacking. In this study, researchers from Brazil conducted four focus groups with 25 teens between the ages of 10 and 19 years. During their discussions, the teens mentioned a few obstacles to healthy snacking. They noted that snacks with less nutritional value are sold in many locations, and they tend to taste better. And, these snacks did not require any preparation, which made them easy to consume when there is a time crunch. Moreover, the snacks available at school were generally of low nutritional quality. According to the researchers, “the main barriers cited were focused on personal and social aspects, such as: the temptation, the taste of food, the influence of parents and the lack of time and options for healthy snacks at school.” 9
In a study published in 2011 in the Journal of School Health, researchers from several locations in the United States wanted to learn more about the foods sold in vending machines in 106 schools in the St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota, metropolitan area. The 829 vending machines surveyed contained a total of 5,085 food and 8,442 beverage items. Ninety-three percent of the foods consisted of salty snacks, candy bars, and baked goods; only 18 percent of the beverages “met the established criteria for healthy beverages.” Clearly, this is a problematic situation. The researchers recommended “increasing the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain products, and low-fat dairy products such as string cheese or yogurt.” This “would go a long way in offering healthful, nutrient-rich snack options for youth at school.” 10
1. France Bellisle, “Meals and Snacking, Diet Quality and Energy Balance,” Physiology & Behavior 134 (2014): 38-43.
2. Naomi Kakoschke, Eva Kemps, and Marika Tiggemann, “Attentional Bias Modification Encourages Healthy Eating,” Eating Behaviors 15 (2014): 120-24.
3. Michael W. Beets, Falon Tilley, Gabrielle Turner-McGrievy et al., “Community Partnership to Address Snack Quality and Cost in After-School Programs,” Journal of School Health 84, no. 8 (2014): 543-48.
4. Rebecca S. Mozaffarian, Analisa Andry, Rebekka M. Lee et al., “Price and Healthfulness of Snacks in 32 YMCA After-School Programs in Four US Metropolitan Areas, 2006-2008,” Preventing Chronic Disease 9 (2012): E38.
5. David Marchiori, Olivier Corneille, and Olivier Klein, “Container Size Influences Snack Food Intake Independently of Portion Size,” Appetite 58 (2012): 814-17.
7. Fatemeh Esfarjani, Fatemeh Mohammadi, Roshanak Roustaee, and Majid Hajifaraji, “Schools’ Cafeteria Status: Does It Affect Snack Patterns? A Qualitative Study,” International Journal of Preventive Medicine 4, no. 10 (2013): 1194-99.
8. Megan B. Irby, Marcie Drury-Brown, and Joseph A. Skelton, “The Food Environment of Youth Baseball,” Childhood Obesity 10, no. 3 (2014): 260-65.
9. Natacha Toral, Maria Aparecida Conti, and Betzabeth Slater, “Healthy Eating According to Teenagers: Perceptions, Barriers, and Expected Characteristics of Teaching Materials,” Cadernos de Saúde Pública (Reports in Public Health) 25, no. 11 (2009): 2386-94.
10. Keryn E. Pasch, Leslie A. Lytle, Annie C. Samuelson et al., “Are School Vending Machines Loaded with Calories and Fat: An Assessment of 106 Middle and High Schools,” Journal of School Health 81, no. 4 (2011): 212-18.
Beets, Michael W., Falon Tilley, Gabrielle Turner-McGrievy et al. “Community Partnership to Address Snack Quality and Cost in After-School Programs.” Journal of School Health 84, no. 8 (2014): 543-48.
Bellisle, France. “Meals and Snacking, Diet Quality and Energy Balance.” Physiology & Behavior 134 (2014): 38-43.
Esfarjani, Fatemeh, Fatemeh Mohammadi, Roshanak Roustaee, and Majid Hajifaraji. “Schools’ Cafeteria Status: Does it Affect Snack Patterns? A Qualitative Study.” International Journal of Preventive Medicine 4, no. 10 (2013): 1194-99.
Gonzalez-Suarez, Consuelo B., Karen Lee-Pineda, Nenita D. Caralipio et al. “Is What Filipino Children Eat Between Meals Associated with Body Mass Index?” Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health 27, no. 2 (2015): NP650-NP661.
Irby, Megan B., Marcie Drury-Brown, and Joseph A. Skelton. “The Food Environment of Youth Baseball.” Childhood Obesity 10, no. 3 (2014): 260-65.
Kakoschke, Naomi, Eva Kemps, and Marika Tiggemann. “Attentional Bias Modfication Encourages Healthy Eating.” Eating Behaviors 15 (2014): 120-24.
Marchiori, David, Olivier Corneille, and Olivier Klein. “Container Size Influences Snack Food Intake Independently of Portion Size.” Appetite 58 (2012): 814-17.
Mozaffarian, Rebecca S., Analisa Andry, Rebekka M. Lee et al. “Price and Healthfulness of Snacks in 32 YMCA After-School Programs in Four US Metropolitan Areas, 2006-2008.” Preventing Chronic Disease 9 (2012): E38.
Pasch, Keryn E., Leslie A. Lytle, Anne C. Samuelson et al. “Are School Vending Machines Loaded with Calories and Fat: An Assessment of 106 Middle and High Schools.” Journal of School Health 81, no. 4 (2011): 212-18.
Piernas, Carmen, and Barry M. Popkin. “Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children.” Health Affairs 29, no. 3 (2010): 398-404.
Toral, Natacha, Maria Aparecida Conti, and Betzabeth Slater. “Healthy Eating According to Teenagers: Perceptions, Barriers, and Expected Characteristics of Teaching Materials.” Cadernos de Saúde Pública (Reports in Public Health) 25, no. 11 (2009): 2386-94.
American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. www.eatright.org .