Healthspan June 14, 2018

In this article food psychologist Dr Jen Nash takes us through the evolution of snacking from caveman to the modern day, revealing there’s more to the eating than you might think. She’ll investigate the ins and outs of snacking, from its psychological effect to the benefits of topping up on energy regularly throughout the day. 

Our dietary evolution

In our evolutionary history, food was scarce and our ancestors ‘hunted and gathered’ for survival, they had a ‘see food – eat food’ response. Sadly, our environments have evolved quicker than our biology, so our brains are still lighting up in the same way when we see food today. This means we have to constantly override this hard-wired response. Our generation is surrounded by food. We lead busy, stressful lives so although we’re physically less active than ever, we still long for the energy boost of an ‘elevenses’ or mid-afternoon snack, pre-dinner nibbles, or an after-dinner treat.

The psychology of (unhealthy) snacking

High salt, high sugar snack food seems to ‘call’ us and some of us need more help than others not to answer this call. Our relationship with food has completely transformed over the last twenty years. Food has become the ultimate ‘problem-solver’. From small dilemmas like feeling stressed or finding it difficult to say ‘no’, because we don’t want to be the only one not having dessert – to larger issues like dealing with emotions and distracting from trauma from the past. Snacking absolutely has its benefits but for some, it has negatives too. Often our manners and traditions are part of the problem and we feel we have no choice when it comes to consuming foods that are less healthy than we’d like – biscuits, crisps and pastries for example:

7 reasons why we eat (that aren’t hunger)

1.Feelings – ‘I’m feeling stressed, food will soothe me’

We’ve all been there. A hard day at the office or some distressing news and all you can think about is feeding your bad mood with a large pizza and an entire box of chocolates. Despite the fact that pizza and chocolates may encourage negative thoughts rather than positive ones.

2.Friends – ‘I’ve got friends coming over…I must provide food and alcohol’

Tradition rules that having friends over means supplying an over-the-top number of snacks whatever the occasion. A couple of cakes to accompany afternoon tea, crisps and dips to accompany wine. No offering is an absolute no no.

3.Fudge it – ‘I’ve already eaten cake, I may as well get a takeaway, too’

Another common reason for over eating is a failed attempt at having a ‘healthy day’. Often, going off piste when it comes to healthy eating prompts us to feel a sense of failure, followed by a sense of relief when we realise we’ve already failed so we may as well indulge for the entire day. Of course, this simply isn’t the case. A slice of cake isn’t the end of the world, whereas a whole day of binge eating may well affect your goals.

4.Fun – ‘A trip to the cinema? Sugary snacks are a must’

Many of us associate fun with food; not necessarily a bad thing, unless you find it difficult to have fun without food. It’s easy to link the fun of watching a movie at the cinema, for example, with sweets as opposed to with the film being played.

5.Feeders – ‘Mum’s made biscuits for me again. It’d be rude not to have one’

It’s very difficult to say no to a loved one when they offer you a home-made cookie. The link between showing gratitude by accepting their offer of affection is strong and extremely difficult to ignore. And once in a while (if not always!) you might fancy that cookie, but sometimes it’s healthy to work up the courage to be thankful but refuse the gift.

6.Focus – ‘I have to have a biscuit with my coffee to concentrate’

This is one we can all relate to. At work the offerings of birthday cake and the constant flow of sweet treats is impossible to ignore. Especially when you’ve got a deadline and you’re telling yourself you can’t concentrate without a snack. Resisting this urge is down to sheer willpower.

7.Free – ‘I may as well eat it if it’s free’

Lastly, free food is a no-brainer, right? The answer is yes, as long as you want that free food. Next time you’re offered office sandwiches when you’ve already had lunch ask yourself, am I really hungry?

What are the benefits of snacking?

Though snacking can be psychologically damaging, we have adapted our diets to suit our modern lifestyles. Take breakfast on the go and frequent ‘snack’ type meals as opposed to 3 main meals, for example. Mindful eating as well as engaging in ‘healthier’ snacks are big drivers for 2018. This year we’ll be looking towards our psychological relationship with food, as well as the better snacks we can turn to for enhancing our diet rather than corrupting it.

Utilising snacking to benefit your health and wellbeing goals is becoming increasingly popular. We live in a culture where busyness is important and a packed schedule of exercise, socialising and self-care is the norm. Many of us don’t have time to prepare food ahead yet we’re keen to maintain a good standard of health. This is where alternatives to an unhealthy coffee accompaniment - like fortified foods and vitamin enriched snacks - have really come to the fore. At the moment we’re looking to heathier snacks to aid our quest for optimum health and to make life that little bit easier.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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