Health

Do Americans have a snacking problem?

Unlike meals, snacks often lack key nutrients and are full of added sugars, making it hard for Americans to limit calorie consumption.

Vending machine full of snacks, including chips and pretzels.
Patrick Sison/AP
SMS

A new study suggests that most Americans consume more than a meal's worth of calories in snacks on an average day. 

According to the study led by Ohio State University and Abbott Nutrition researchers, the average American adult consumes about 400-500 calories per day in snacks, which is often more than what is consumed for breakfast. 

Unlike daily meals, snacks offer little nutritional value, researchers said. 

“Snacks are contributing a meal’s worth of intake to what we eat without it actually being a meal,” Christopher Taylor, senior study author, said. “You know what dinner is going to be: a protein, a side dish or two. But if you eat a meal of what you eat for snacks, it becomes a completely different scenario of, generally, carbohydrates, sugars, not much protein, not much fruit, not a vegetable. So it’s not a fully well-rounded meal.”

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The number of calories needed to maintain a healthy weight varies wildly depending on a person's height and activity level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For adults ages 31-59, the USDA recommends females consume between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day and males consume about 2,200 to 3,000 calories a day

The USDA estimates that 90% of the U.S. population does not meet the recommendation for vegetables. 

Yet, about 19.5% to 22.4% of the calories consumed among those surveyed come from snacks. 

These foods, OSU researchers said, are generally more convenient and often contain higher levels of added sugar. The report noted that few people eat vegetables as part of their snack. 

“We need to go from just less added sugar to healthier snacking patterns,” Taylor said. “We’ve gotten to a point of demonizing individual foods, but we have to look at the total picture. Removing added sugars won’t automatically make the vitamin C, vitamin D, phosphorus and iron better. And if we take out refined grains, we lose nutrients that come with fortification."

And with many starting to travel for the holidays, convenient snacks could be relied upon more often by many in the coming weeks. Taylor recommends having a plan. 

"It’s all about the environment and what you have available, and planning accordingly. And it’s about shopping behavior: What do we have in the home?” he said. “We think about what we’re going to pack for lunch and cook for dinner. But we don’t plan that way for our snacks. So then you’re at the mercy of what’s available in your environment.”