We are now officially a nation of snackers !

That is, according to a study published in 2017 for a Channel 4 documentary.

This was said to be the largest-ever consumer survey into what we eat between meals. About 11,000 people were quizzed, with the results published in national newspapers like The Telegraph.

The documentary titled The Secret of Our Favourite Snacks was broadcast on Channel 4.

The astonishing findings were that, we are now the largest snackers in Europe, eating four times more crisps than the French or Italians.

The average Brit now eats crisps, nuts or popcorn seven times a week.

In the last two years alone, snacking on nuts has risen by almost 25 per cent, with the fastest growth area among men over the age of 45.

When it comes to women between the ages of 25 and 44, snacking on popcorn is up 45.7 per cent from 2014.

If that was enough food for thought, another survey – this time by YouGov – has revealed that more than half of British women (54 per cent) now snack twice a day, but that four-fifths (84 per cent) instantly feel guilty about doing it.

No wonder we are known as ‘generation graze’.

Yet, in the past hunger used to be an ordinary part of the day. So many of us grew up eating the standard three meals per day, with no snacking in between. Why has the UK changed so much and how did we get to needing to be permanently satied. It cannot be good for us – or can it ?

Channel 4’s presenter and Harley Street GP, Dr Pixie McKenna is well known for commenting on health matters. She presents the Bafta-winning series “Embarrasing Bodies” and other medical shows.

Dr McKenna said: “In today’s society, there’s so much pressure to look good and eat right,”

“But in reality, leading such busy lives means snacking is inevitable. It’s important to fuel our bodies, especially if we’re hungry,”

She added: “I have never been a regular snacker. I mix it up, depending on what I’m doing. When I’m in the clinic, I can often have back-to-back appointments, which doesn’t give me time to snack.”

But she admitted when she does grab an extra bite between meals, she is caught – like so many of us – feeling guilty. “That guilt really resonates with me. It’s really difficult to change your perspective when it is so ingrained in today’s society that snacking equals unhealthy.”

Dr Pixie McKenna relies on regular healthy snacks to keep her going. Dr McKenna, now 48, is in excellent shape and does not look like someone who is packing away extra Mars bars all day long. She grew up in Cork in the Seventies and admits that she had a traditional three-meals-a-day household – “with no biscuit barrel sitting on the kitchen worktop”, she says.

Now, in this decade Dr McKenna, like so many women who work, has a ready supply of snacks in her desk for “morning and afternoon pick-me-ups”. As a busy doctor and a working mum to Darcy, eight, her days are outrageously long. “I might have breakfast at 6am and not sit down to dinner until 8pm. I’m always on the go.”

She admits: “When I was younger, I always mentally associated snacking with guilt, and being too full to eat a healthy meal later on. This is primarily because my brain is hard-wired to interpret the word ‘snack’ as free-rein to eat something ridiculously naughty.”

We cannot help but associate snacks with unhealthy treats

But, she points out, maybe it’s time to change our approach. “It’s incredible that women still feel so much guilt about what essentially, is fuelling our bodies, and sustaining our day.

“Almost one fifth (19 per cent) of women in the survey” – which was commissioned by healthy snack food brand, The Food Doctor – “say that they’ve skipped meals because they’ve snacked during the day. It saddens me that we put this pressure on ourselves, and I’d never advise that women skip meals, as even skipping one meal causes blood sugar levels to dive.

“Without a new supply of calories, your body shifts into starvation mode in an effort to conserve energy, so your metabolism slows and the food that you eventually do take in isn’t burned off very efficiently.

“That’s why eating smaller, healthier meals as well as snacks throughout the day is much better, as they’ll keep you going, and we need this in our busy lives.”

However, some doctors advise against constantly topping up the internal tank. One concern is that keeping blood sugars constantly raised by snacking could mean our insulin levels stay artificially high, helping to raise the risk of developing insulin resistance.

Dr McKenna is unconvinced. “There are a whole host of factors involved in insulin resistance, so to cite snacking as a direct cause of Type-2 diabetes is a bit of a stretch. We know excess weight and inactivity are key drivers in insulin resistance so these should have the greatest prominence in our driver to reduce our rates of Type-2 diabetes.”

What about the study in the journal Hepatology, which found that, compared with three large meals a day, frequent snacks were more likely to cause cholesterol stores in the liver to rise along with the accumulation of harmful fat around the waist? Or the experiment at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, that found if people were made to wait for a snack, they made healthier choices? Is instant gratification a good thing?

She says: “I think it is easy to find a study to support the pros and cons of snacking. The reality is people snack – this research shows that almost two thirds (59 per cent) of women snack at least twice or more per day, so our goal should be that we make these snacks both healthy and delicious.”

Not that she has a problem with appetite. “There is nothing wrong with being hungry – it’s the whole premise on which fasting diets were based on. However, our nutritional goals need to be tailored to our daily lives, and for one person, being hungry might be acceptable yet wholly intolerable to another. I personally don’t like being hungry, and I doubt many people do.”

But step back from those salt and vinegar crisps: not all snacks are equal, says the doctor. “Common sense is key, and will tell you that a healthy snack, such as a handful of trail mix, is much healthier than, say, a family-size bag of crisps.”

So what can we eat without guilt? “A good snack in the morning might be a toasted pitta bread, with some peanut butter spread on top. In the afternoon, try trail or seed mix. I find they’re great to snack on between appointments and a good source of fibre.” She recommends bananas – “nature’s fast food” – for when you’ve just had a workout.

And what to avoid? “Chocolate digestives – they’re the devil’s work, because you can never eat only one.”

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