Americans have been getting more obese in recent decades because of two main factors: less movement and more calories. At the same time, snacking between meals has become a big part of the American lifestyle, fueling the second half of the obesity equation.
Snacking can add hundreds of extra calories to your daily intake that you don't even notice, until the evidence turns up on the scale. That's because most people snack mindlessly, regarding both quantity and quality.
Most packaged snack foods are loaded with calories, salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients our bodies can do without. Sure, they're tasty. In fact, they're engineered to taste good so you'll want to eat more. To the manufacturer, profit is the priority, not your health.
Next time you're in the grocery store, notice how much space is devoted to pretzels, chips, sodas, crackers, cookies, pastries and candies. Then note how many of those products you normally throw into your cart as part of your family's diet. How necessary are these products to your health? How much do you spend on them every week or month?
Perhaps you go for snack foods that promise to be better for you? Recently, a national television show featured a nutritionist who showed that even snack foods labeled "low fat," "low sugar" or bearing some other suggestion of health can be far from good for you. A bowl of sweet potato chips, for instance, contained just as much fat, salt and calories as conventional potato chips.
Besides, exceeding your daily calorie needs can cause weight gain no matter if the calories come from foods that are healthy or unhealthy.
Still, snacking isn't all bad. The proper time to snack is when you feel physically hungry and know that if you don't have a snack, you'll be so famished by your next meal that you'll likely overeat or lose control later. At a time like this, it makes total sense to eat, but do it mindfully — thinking about what you're putting into your body, what benefits it will provide and how it will complement the rest of the day's intake.
If you snack more than once per day, snack mindlessly, spend a lot of money on packaged snack foods and are having trouble achieving a healthy weight, you might be a "problem snacker." If so, it's time to look at reducing and changing your snacks. Here are a few tips to accomplish that:
• Make note of how often you snack each day and what foods you usually choose.
• Learn how to read nutrition labels so you can determine if a snack is really healthy.
• Get rid of the most-caloric, least-nutritious snacks from your kitchen and grocery list.
• Just because something isn't usually called a snack food doesn't mean it can't be one. For example, yogurt with fruit and nuts can be eaten as a meal, as part of a meal or as a snack. A portion of last night's healthy meal can be a snack today.
• Eat well-balanced meals so you're less likely to be hungry between meals. The USDA's website, ChooseMyPlate.gov, is an easy way to learn what eating well means. When you satisfy your body's nutritional needs your between-meal cravings will diminish.
• Get busy just before usual snack times. Sometimes we get in the habit of snacking when we're bored, not really hungry. Finding active ways to occupy those times will help you break that habit.
• Eat before your hunger gets out of control.
• Gradually reduce quantities rather than going cold turkey. The mind tends to be more compliant if it perceives that what you want it to do isn't so difficult. So, use small steps to gradually reduce the size and improve the quality of snacks.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org