Diet therapy

Are you a “sneaky snacker”?

snack3Nearly one in 4 people (23%) sneak a snack according to recent research from Lincoln University which also found that seven out of ten believed their snacking behaviour was “healthy”.

The researchers expressed concern that increasing snacking behaviour, across all age groups, may be contributing to New Zealanders accelerating rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.1

The most common foods that people snacked on were crisps, fruit, nuts, biscuits and muesli bars while chocolate and wheat crackers were the least munched on snacks.

While most of these foods would be considered healthy their effects on the waistline depends on portion size and how many kilocalories/
kilojoules they contribute to a person’s total daily intake.

So is “snacking” a healthy behaviour?

“Yes” it can be if the snack is eaten as part of the total energy intake and ideally that energy  is spread evenly across the day.

Snacking may benefit some groups of the population more than others e.g:

  • Young children and the elderly often have smaller appetites and so would benefit from two smaller meals/snacks than (say) one large breakfast.
  •  Athletes need to snack before and after exercise to “top up” and “replace” energy expended.
  • Shift workers, especially those who may start work at (say)3-4am may benefit by having three small breakfasts/snacks at say 3am- 7am and 10am rather than one large cooked breakfast at 8am.

What foods make the best snacks?

This depends on the degree of hunger and the speed at which the energy from the snack becomes available.

High GI foods such as chips, lollies, crackers, cookies, juice or carbonated drinks will release glucose rapidly into the blood stream within around 30 minutes and then fade just as quickly. These examples of heavily processed foods are also often loaded with sugar, salt and saturated fat. They can in fact keep the snacking habit going by making you feel hungrier.

Where as low GI foods such as a cheese sandwich, or a pottle of yoghurt with fruit or whole grain cereal can sustain appetite for up to 3-5 hours thereby reducing hunger, unnecessary calorie consumption and the “need” to snack.

Why do we snack?


The need to snack can certainly be a factor when extra energy is needed during times of rapid growth, heavier workloads or long periods of exercise.  Also snacks may be required if the normal diet is failing to satisfy appetite for long enough (as outlined above).

Biological reasons

The hypothalamus responsible for appetite control can be malfunctioning as too can the pancreas in cases of pre-diabetes. Both good reasons for you to talk to your doctor if you feel constantly hungry.

Behavioural Issues

Some people find it hard to control snacking and are continuously thinking about food. They may find themselves constantly picking, stock piling foods in drawers and cupboards at home and work. They seldom plan meals and will buy food on impulse such as confectionery at the supermarket/garage checkout. They may eat normally in front of people and then find themselves binge eating when alone.

Emotional issues

Some people find themselves snacking more when they are bored, lonely or under stress. They never feel satisfied and although they may be desperate to make changes and improve their control over food they may feel powerless to do so. If you are eating for comfort Lea’s article “comfort foods that keep us healthy” may be of help

Health concerns

Dental health can be at greater risk from snacking as it exposes teeth to sugars and other fermentable carbohydrates when people are away from home without the opportunity to clean teeth.

If frequent episodes of snacking spirals into a binge-eating problem then it is important to discuss this with your doctor. As overeating can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, osteoarthritis, gastrointestinal upsets and sleep apnoea. Binge-eating can also lead to mental disorders, depression, anxiety and long-term eating disorders.

Simple dietary tips to help

  • Keeping  a food diary noting, what you eat; where you eat and how you are feeling when you eat, as this can help you become more aware of the pattern of eating behaviour that you have started to develop.
  • Make sure you have three main meals a day that contain small but good quality sources of protein e.g. egg, cheese, fish as these foods will sustain appetite for up to 4-5 hours.
  • Choose low GI foods instead of high GI e.g. bread instead of crackers; fruit instead of biscuits or cakes; popcorn instead of crisps.
  • Do plan mid-meal snacks of fruit or whole grain bread especially if you are very active.
  • Be mindful of dental health and drink water after meals and snacks and clean teeth regularly
  • Keep well hydrated, but avoid juice and carbonated drinks.
  • Exercise for at least 60 minutes each day.
  • Sleep 7-8 hours if you can. Growing children need up to 9 hours sleep/day.
  • Seek support from people that you trust.

Break the “guilt trip”

By recognising the downward spiral that is created when negative thoughts lead to negative emotions and unhelpful behaviours. E.g:

Thought “I shouldn’t be watching T.V” -> I’m lazy and no good-> emotions of guilt/anxiety/self loathing-> behaviour of procrastination/binge eating/drinking alcohol.

  •  If you do make a mistake, guilt won’t reverse it.
  •  Feelings of guilt won’t lead you to a more productive or healthier life.
  •  Foods are not “good” or “bad”. Some just have more fat, sugar and energy than you can digest in one sitting or right now.(If you were on a deserted island without food a packet of chips or chocolate would be a “god send”).
  • You are not “good or bad” according to the foods you eat. However the more abdominal (visceral) fat that you lay down the harder it is for the organs responsible for fat digestion to work properly.

The key to reducing “out of hand” snacking behaviour is never to be hungry in the first place and to start appreciating how wonderful your body is (what ever it’s size) and work towards helping it to work more efficiently.

If you would like help to break a “sneaky snacking” habit and to learn how to have a more positive attitude towards food then contact us today


1) Charley Mann One in four snack in secret. Christchurch study says one in four sneak a treat press/christchurch-life/eat-and drink/8358339/One -in-four-snack 28/02/2013.


About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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