October 2016 Issue

Healthful Snacking: Filling Nutrient Gaps
With Nourishing Snacks

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 18, No. 10, P. 16

Snacking in between meals has become an American pastime for children and adults. Kids snack at school, sports games, and nearly every kid event. Adults are used to having food at the ready with something in the car, the purse, and at the nearest store, says Elana Natker, MS, RD, a nutrition communications consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. And with all of the new snack products being introduced, many clients find it hard to resist those that may taste great but have little to no nutritional value.

"I feel like every occasion is a snacking occasion," Natker says. Statistics bear this out. According to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from 2011–2012, approximately 30% of the population eat between meals at least four times per day. A growing trend is to trade in traditional meals for multiple snacks or mini meals.1 NHANES data indicate that only three in 100 people don't snack.

All of this noshing between meals contributes about one-quarter of total calories, the equivalent of a fourth meal.1 Unfortunately, these aren't always nutrient-dense calories, and most Americans don't meet the recommendations of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). "People often view snacks as an energy boost, a hunger-satisfier, a recreational activity, or a treat," says Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. A more healthful view is that a snack is another opportunity to consume nutrients and boost health, she says.

According to a Neilson report, three of the top five snack foods among North Americans are chips, chocolate, and cookies.2 Yet the DGA notes that the diets of about 75% of the population are low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils, and that most Americans exceed the recommended limits for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.3 The DGA further identifies calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D as nutrients of public health concern because they're both underconsumed and associated with negative health outcomes. In addition, for young children, pregnant women, and women capable of becoming pregnant, low intake of iron also is a public health concern.

According to the USDA, snacking among adults over age 20 contributes 21% of saturated fat and 14% of sodium intakes.4 For the underconsumed nutrients of public health concern, snacking contributes 20% of dietary fiber, 17% of vitamin D, 25% of calcium, 16% of iron, and 21% of potassium intakes.

By encouraging wholesome snack choices, dietitians can help clients better meet the DGA recommendations. A study of 233 adults participating in a worksite wellness program found that while total snacking calories or frequency was unrelated to diet quality, the choice of snack foods did affect overall diet quality. The percentage of snacking calories from nuts, fruit, and fruit juice was positively correlated to diet quality, whereas percentage of snacking calories from sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages was negatively related to diet quality.5

Drivers of Snack Choices
According to research involving more than 2,700 adults and published in 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, mini-meals, snacks, and treats were less likely to be planned in advance than any of the three major meals. Consumers ate 59% of their snacks without planning. The top reason reported for eating a snack was to satisfy hunger or thirst, followed by a desire for something tasty and to continue the habit of eating or drinking at certain times of the day or specific foods and beverages.6

Another important driver of snack choices is labeling touting a food is "free-from" some unhealthful or perceived undesirable nutrient or compound. "People are reaching for 'free-from' foods for a variety of reasons," explains Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, culinary nutritionist and special diets expert. "Food allergies and celiac disease have been on the rise, and so some are avoiding certain foods out of medical necessity." Others wanting to live more healthfully look for foods labeled sugar-free or trans fat-free, for example. Many consumers mistakenly equate such labeling with wholesome or healthful. "Just because a food has a 'free-from' claim doesn't mean it is necessarily healthful or better for you," Begun warns. Many patients with celiac disease or food allergies rely too heavily on these foods. They can feel good about the safety of these products, which is a top priority, but it doesn't necessarily translate to healthful or balanced eating, she explains.

Encouraging Better Choices

Plan Ahead
Teaching consumers to plan their snacks can lead to dietary improvements, says Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, founder of Nutrition Nuptials. According to Enright, many of her clients grab food throughout the day without considering their total intake, which can lead to nutrient-poor and calorie-rich diets. To turn the tide, encourage clients to do the following:

• Identify several nutrient-dense snacks that are enjoyable and convenient. Clients should keep these foods on hand wherever they snack. It's helpful for clients to create a personalized snack menu to guide their choices when hungry for food between meals.
• Preportion snacks into small baggies or containers to increase convenience and prevent overconsumption.
• Recommend clients eat fruits and vegetables as part of every snack. "By adding at least one fruit or vegetable to each snack, overall intake of produce can be increased each day while providing a boost in underconsumed nutrients," says New Jersey-based dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.

Read Food Labels
Maryland-based Kaitlin Williams, MPH, RD, LD, finds that many of her clients mistakenly identify nutrient-poor foods as good choices and often overeat when they deem foods as healthful. A careful look at the food label can show them otherwise. For example, "the '% Daily Value' can be used to quickly determine if a food item is high or low in a given nutrient," Williams explains.

Moreover, a quick glance at the serving size and the sodium line identifies the sodium in a serving of packaged foods. Soon the new Nutrition Facts label will categorize added sugars, enabling consumers to easily spot foods high or low in this overconsumed nutrient. Food manufacturers must comply with the new labeling rules by July 2018. "In the meantime, keep scanning ingredients lists for forms of added sugars," says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of Plant-Powered for Life. Look for added sugars in the form of corn syrup, brown rice syrup, and honey. Some of the worst offenders are granola bars, yogurt, and cookies, she adds. A daily limit of 50 g of added sugars corresponds to 10% of a 2,000-calorie diet, the recommended limit in the DGA.

To limit saturated fats to no more than 10% of calories, consumers eating about 2,000 calories should cap their intake at no more than 22 g of saturated fats daily. Both the ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts panel identify saturated fats. To remove harmful trans fats in the food supply, some manufacturers have turned to ingredients rich in shelf-stable saturated fats such as coconut oil and palm oil, Palmer warns. Better choices for packaged foods include high-oleic oils because they're more stable, as well as traditional canola oil, olive oil, soybean oil, and others, which may not be as stable as high oleic oils but provide a more healthful fatty acid profile than tropical oils, butter, and lard.

Make Swaps
Palinski-Wade recommends helping consumers identify nutrient-poor snack choices to replace with more wholesome foods providing underconsumed nutrients (see table).

Americans are snackers. By guiding consumers to choose more nutrient-dense snacks, especially from those foods providing shortfall nutrients, dietitians will help the public adopt diets that more closely resemble the recommendations of the DGA.

— Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC, is a freelance writer and a nutrition and diabetes consultant to the food industry, including Dow AgroSciences, the maker of Omega-9 Oils, a high-oleic canola oil. She also has a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, and is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss—Week by Week.

1. Kant AK, Graubard BI. 40-year trends in meal and snack eating behaviors of American adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(1):50-63.

2. Global consumers nibble, nosh and snack their way to big sales. Nielsen website. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2014/global-consumers-nibble-nosh-and-snack-their-way-to-big-sales.html. Updated September 30, 2014.

3. US Department of Health & Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020: Eighth Edition. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Published January 7, 2016. Accessed January 26, 2016.

4. Sebastian RS, Wilkinson Enns CW, Goldman JD. Snacking patterns of U.S. adults: what we eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Surveys Research Group. https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400530/pdf/DBrief/4_adult_snacking_0708.pdf. Published June 2011.

5. Barnes TL, French SA, Harnack LJ, Mitchell NR, Wolfson J. Snacking behaviors, diet quality, and body mass index in a community sample of working adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(7):1117-1123.

6. Reicks M, Degeneffe D, Rendahl A, et al. Association between eating occasion characteristics of age, gender, presence of children and BMI among U.S. adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(4):315-327.