What drives unhealthy snacking?

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

The biggest driver behind unhealthy snacking? A special occasion... finds research
The biggest driver behind unhealthy snacking? A special occasion... finds research

Related tags Snack food

Enjoying a special occasion, opportunistic eating and social pressures are just some of the drivers behind unhealthy snacking – factors that could be used to drive change, researchers claim.

Published in Appetite​, researchers from the Netherlands investigated the social drivers behind unhealthy snacking – an area they said had been given little attention in the past.

An ‘unhealthy snack’ was defined as all foods consumed between the three main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) containing high amounts of ingredients like fat and sugar. Products including crisps, salted nuts, popcorn, cookies, pies, candy bars, chocolate, toast, cheese and ice cream were among those considered as an 'unhealthy snack'.

Findings indicated six categories behind unhealthy snacking: opportunity induced eating,coping with negative emotions, enjoying a special occasion, rewarding oneself, social pressure, and gaining energy.

“The reasons identified in the present study demonstrate a remarkable large diversity, showing that a broad range of situations is mentioned as a reason to consume unhealthy snacks. These include opposite factors like experiencing positive affect and sadness, or having worked hard as well as having a day off,”​ the researchers wrote.

While they said the six categories were not an exhaustive list of reasons, they covered the dominant drivers.

Who, why and when?

Participants were asked to fill out a ‘Reasons to Snack’ questionnaire based on 35 items, including open ended questions.

From the survey of 1,544 participants (conducted twice with a one-month interval), findings showed ‘enjoying a special occasion’ to be the biggest driver behind unhealthy snacking, closely followed by ‘opportunity induced eating’.

Unhealthy snacking to enjoy a special occasion was an area the researchers said had received little attention in previous research and was a “novel category”.

“Unhealthy snack consumption, rather than eating behavior in general, is likely particularly associated with enjoying a special occasion, such as being at a party,” ​they wrote.

Very close behind ‘opportunity induced eating’ came a desire ‘to gain energy’.

The study found that differences in reasons for unhealthy snacking were most profound for age. “Except for enjoying a special occasion, younger people indicated a higher score for each category,” ​the researchers said.

In addition, women had higher scores compared to men for half the reasons, they said, including coping with negative emotions, enjoying a special occasion and gaining energy.

Prevention and healthy strategies

These findings, the researchers said, could be used to construct health interventions or drive forward healthy snacking alternatives.

“A stronger focus on enjoying a special occasion and on opportunity induced eating may be adopted as participants indicated these categories as relatively most important for unhealthy snacking. This could for instance be done by promoting the availability of healthy alternatives when celebrating an event, and on impulse control to combat opportunity induced eating,”​ they said.


Source: Appetite
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.013. January 2015, Vol 84, Pages 20-27
“It’s my party and I eat if I want to. Reasons for unhealthy snacking”
Authors: AAC. Verhoeven, MA. Adriaanse, E. De Vet, BM. Fennish and DTD. De Ridder

Related topics R&D Snacks Health

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