Snack attack: How snacking is making us fat

Ummm…..snacks. We all love those tasty snacks but the hard reality is that they are typically packed with sugar, full of calories and a major contributor to the obesity crisis.

I’m rarely one to call up a graph, but this one is packed with goodness. It shows what percentage of our daily calorie intake we take at different times of the day.

So back in the skinny sixties we enjoyed three square meals a day and little in between, we ate fewer calories and took more exercise. Dial forward to the new millennium and the big difference is that we are now snacking heavily in-between meals.

Globally we buy $374bn of snacks every year. Each year in the UK we consume 6 billion packets of crisps, that’s well over ONE TRILLION calories. The average Brit now consumes between 500 and 1,000 more calories a day than they should, let’s say you have a mid-morning croissant and an afternoon regular size chocolate bar, that’s about 700 calories, you’ll need a good hour of hard jogging just to burn those treats.

So how did we get hooked on snacks? Its part biology, part design and part psychological.

First the biology….the main meals we now eat are much higher in refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread and rice and much lower in high-density wholegrains and good natural fats such as animal fats and dairy.

Our gut rapidly digest refined carbs into glucose, which courses through our body sending our pancreases, liver and other organs into overdrive. Your body is so concerned by the damage that high glucose (think sticky blood) could cause that is releases extra insulin to burn the glucose and rapidly turns the excess glucose into fat. The big problem is a couple of hour later your fully revved engine has burned through all that fuel, your blood glucose drops and your brain switches to emergency lifesaving mode, it powers down all non-critical energy-burning functions, releasing hormones to make you feel lazy and hungry. So you reach for the quick energy-fix carb snacks, burn through those until lunchtime, then tea, dinner, and a bedtime snack all the while knackering your metabolic system, piling fat on your organs and setting yourself up nicely for diabetes.

This is all no accident of nature. It is the creation of extraordinary food scientists working in laboratories. They have refined the perfect blend of salt, sugar and fat to feel great in the mouth, stimulate the pleasure sensors in the brain and still leave us feeling hungry. Our brain has evolved little from the days of hunter gathers. It knows we need energy and if we eat a rich source of energy it releases endorphin and dopamine so we eat feel great and eat more. The problem is the our food science has evolved immeasurably, we now have ready access to a plentiful sources of rich energy so we eat and eat getting high on the dopamine. This is the same but milder effect as cocaine or ecstasy. Those people more sensitive to dopamine and endorphin have a genuine addiction to overeating.

Then there is the psychology, or more precisely the emotional conditioning. Globally the food and drinks industry spends around $300bn on advertising and other subtler forms of marketing. Much of that is spent on high carbohydrate snacks such as chocolates, crisps and fizzy drinks. Those billions spent over the last 50 years have taught us to associate snacks with experiences or emotions, schooled us to form habits and established a distorted sense of normal portion size in order to increase sales of their products.

Also in this series:

Snackify: How advertising conditioned us to snack

Snack Smart: Bitesize tips for healthier snacking


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