There was a point in the not-so-distant past when petrol stations sold petrol, not chips and chocolates. Gyms had water fountains, not vending machines, and food trucks were parked at carnivals, not around every corner…
A study by the Medical Research Council found that South Africans’ kilojoule consumption per day increased from 10 868kJ in 1962 to 12 122kJ in 2001 – a scary number that explains SA’s obesity rate, says dietician and WH weight-loss advisor Charlene Giovanelli-Nicolson. The same study found that our fat intake has nearly doubled in the same period. And a high percentage of that fat comes from snacks.
“Most people think that purchasing a convenient snack is quick and healthy,” says Giovanelli-Nicolson. But those convenience foods tend to be the ones most laden with fat, sugar and sodium. Snacks in general have more kilojoules than ever before. No wonder 56 percent of South African women are considered obese. But aside from being insanely accessible, why do these between-meal bites have such power? We found out.
Sure, we eat snacks because they taste good, but we’re also motivated by our ideas about what they are – and what they supposedly can do for us.
We think they’re healthy
Around the turn of the millennium, research began to cite the benefits of eating more frequently (as opposed to sticking to three main meals). The theory is that regularly stoking your metabolism with food can actually help you burn more kilojoules. As a result, dieticians began advocating an eating plan that distributed the total daily kilojoules (around 7500 for a 60kg woman) among five or six “mini meals” eaten three to four hours apart. It’s good advice – if you follow it. Unfortunately, too many people simply added two or three smaller meals (at 1050 to 1250kJ each) to their usual 1650 to 2100kJ breakfasts, lunches and dinners. You get the picture: they ended up overeating, all in the name of better health.
The hype is hard to resist
Take the “health halo” effect, for example. By simply labelling foods with healthy-sounding names, manufacturers and restaurants can get you to eat more, regardless of how nutritious (or not) the snack may be. Earlier this year, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) found that people, particularly those with a history of dieting, tended to consume more when a food had a description such as “fruit chews” than when the identical treat was called “candy chews”. And snack-size packaging – which supposedly was introduced to help us manage our eating – may only make matters worse. A different study in the JCR found that dieters inhaled significantly more kilojoules from mini packs of biscuits than from standard size ones. When you finish one bag and still aren’t satisfied (the portions are really small, after all), you dig in to another – and then another, says lead study author Dr Maura Scott.
They give us a rush
“Like doing the washing or going to work, eating meals is often seen as routine and obligatory,” says psychologist Dr Susan Albers, author of But I Deserve This Chocolate! “Snacks, in contrast, feel like a gold star for a job well done.” Plus, because they tend to be sugary, fatty or salty, they trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that elicits feelings of euphoria, much like the feel-good rush of a triumphant shopping trip or a roll in the hay. Even the best salad, like it or not, won’t inspire that kind of biological reaction.