Why do we snack? Reasons for healthy and unhealthy snacking

Luise Wortmann
About the Author

Luise Wortmann studied Psychology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and completed her Master thesis in the APPetite-study (WP 3 of Eat2beNice) in 2020.


What we eat between meals, we usually call a snack. Snacks can be all kinds of foods, but they often differ from main meals in what they contain, portion size, consumption time, and place as well as why they`re eaten [1][2]. If you’re someone who likes to snack, I am probably not telling you anything new. While main meals are mostly eaten because of hunger or habit of eating at a certain time, the reasons why people eat snacks show more variation [1][3]. Most of us have experiences with eating even when not being really hungry. People snack because they seek energy, but also because they are used to eating in a certain setting. Sometimes they see someone else eating and want to be social. Also, many of us eat for emotional reasons like being stressed or feeling sad and lonely. On special occasions like birthdays or weddings, food usually plays a big role and people eat to celebrate. Furthermore, some like to reward themselves with a snack after a long day at work.

Hungry snacking
I did my master thesis on this topic as part of the APPetite-study (work package 3 of the Eat2beNICE-project). Our results show that unhealthy snacks are consumed more often than healthy snacks which are in line with previous studies [1][4]. Research indicates that healthy snacks like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are consumed for different reasons compared to unhealthy snacks like sweets, desserts, cakes, crisps, and other salty snacks. In a study by Cleobury and Tapper (2014) [1] hunger was given more often as a reason for eating healthy snacks and main meals and less for eating unhealthy snacks.  

Emotional snacking
Maybe you have noticed that you tend to eat less healthy when you’re not feeling good. You’re not alone. The findings of several studies suggest that stress and negative effects increase the preference of consuming unhealthy foods [5][6][7][8][9]. In the results of my thesis, I found that in response to negative emotions participants ate healthy as well as unhealthy snacks. So it seems like healthy food can also offer comfort.

Celebrations
To celebrate a special occasion or to reward oneself, people tend to eat unhealthy snacks. Our results so far do not suggest that people consume healthy snacks to celebrate a special occasion or to reward themselves. Verhoeven et al. (2015) [4] found that a lot of unhealthy snacks were eaten at special occasions. This may be the case because special occasions seem rare to most people and can be used as an excuse to eat without thinking about consequences. Are you now thinking ‘but what about the salad bars and the fruit platers?’ One explanation could be that even if there is salad or fruit at a birthday buffet, one may afterward say that they ate this because they were hungry or because it looked tasty, but still justify the cake they ate at the same setting with the specialty of this event.

Social snacking
People also give social reasons for eating snacks, like eating because someone else was eating or to keep someone’s company. The results of our research suggest that these reasons are more often given for unhealthy snacks. It could be assumed that this is also a way to justify ones eating behavior by kind of blaming it on someone else, maybe even unconsciously. Do you have a friend you always end up eating too much with?

Looks and smell
I guess we all know how hard it is to stay away from all the foods one ‘should not eat’. Our results also show that unhealthy snacks were more often consumed because they looked or smelled good or because one could not stop thinking about food. Therefore this craving for palatable foods seems to be more urgent for unhealthy snacks high in fat and sugar.

Besides that it may be interesting for all of us individually to be mindful of what we eat and why, the different reasons for healthy and unhealthy snacking have important implications for health interventions that focus on nutrition and weight reduction. Many of these did not show positive long-term effects. Taking the reasons for unhealthy snacking into account may help to improve the effects of health interventions. If the availability of palatable food is one of the main reasons, stimulus control could be an effective strategy to reduce unhealthy snacking. People who eat unhealthy snacks because they feel stressed on the other hand, could benefit from relaxation exercises and emotion regulation training.

If you’re looking for more information on benefits of a healthy diet, the other blog posts on newbrainnutrition.com could be interesting for you. You can also download our cookbook with healthy recipes. Or read this tipsheet on how to get your family into eating more vegetables and fruits.

References

1. Cleobury, L. & Tapper, K. (2014). Reasons for eating ‘unhealthy’ snacks in overweight and obese males and females. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics: the official journal of the British Dietetic Association, 27(4), 333–341. https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12169

2. Younginer, N. A., Blake, C. E., Davison, K. K., Blaine, R. E., Ganter, C., Orloski, A. & Fisher, J. O. (2016). “What do you think of when I say the word ‘snack’?” Towards a cohesive definition among low-income caregivers of preschool-age children. Appetite, 98, 35–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.12.002

3. Tuomisto, T., Tuomisto, M. T., Hetherington, M. & Lappalainen, R. (1998). Reasons for initiation and cessation of eating in obese men and women and the affective consequences of eating in everyday situations. Appetite, 30(2), 211–222. https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.1997.0142

4. Verhoeven, A. A. C., Adriaanse, M. A., Vet, E. de, Fennis, B. M. & Ridder, D. T. D. de (2015). It’s my party and I eat if I want to. Reasons for unhealthy snacking. Appetite, 84, 20–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.013

5. Greeno, C. G. & Wing, R. R. (1994). Stress-induced eating. Psychological Bulletin, 115(3), 444–464.

6. O’Connor, D. B., Jones, F., Conner, M., McMillan, B. & Ferguson, E. (2008). Effects of daily hassles and eating style on eating behavior. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 27(1), S20-31. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.27.1.S20

7. Oliver, G. & Wardle, J. (1999). Perceived effects of stress on food choice. Physiology and Behaviour, 66(3), 511–515.

8. Oliver, G., Wardle, J. & Gibson, E. L. (2000). Stress and food choice: a laboratory study. Psychosomatic medicine, 62(6), 853–865. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-200011000-00016

9. Zellner, D. A., Loaiza, S., Gonzalez, Z., Pita, J., Morales, J., Pecora, D. & Wolf, A. (2006). Food selection changes under stress. Physiology & behavior, 87(4), 789–793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.01.014