We’re told there isn’t, but our love of eating between meals has made the UK the nation with fattest people in Europe – and we’ve touch with what it feels like to be genuinely hungry
At the end of the summer Ali Catterall, 49, sent a tweet celebrating his fasted blood sugar count dropping below the key figure of 48 mmol/mol, when he ceased to be technically diabetic. The tweet says he will be celebrating with a box of Maltesers. It was a joke, but Catterall’s story is far from funny.
“Like a lot of people with solitary sedentary jobs I already had a tendency to snack my way through the day.” A respected writer, a couple of events in 2018 left him both injured, grieving and depressed. “I decided to kill myself by eating.”
Technically a snack is a small amount of food between meals. This could be an apple, the pious handful of raw and unsalted almonds, or it could be, says Ali Catterall, “My thing: chocolate milk,” and if he was out, “KFC and McDonalds. Industrially made snacks were my main substance of abuse because they’re so easy, grab them, eat them and get an instant rush.”
The truth is, even if your snack is a banana or nuts, unless you are not just peckish but actually, genuinely hungry, many experts now believe there is no such thing as a healthy snack. Yet many of us seem to have lost touch with what it feels like to be genuinely hungry.
Mintel’s report into Consumer Snacking earlier this year points out that only half of snackers are driven by hunger. The rest are driven by “cravings” and “emotional needs” and the use of “snacks as an antidote to busy lifestyles.”
Could our endless snacking be at the root of the explosion in obesity?
Dame Sally Davies in her stinging child obesity farewell report as Chief Medical Officer seemed to think so, and she suggested that snacks be wrapped in plain paper like cigarettes and that eating be banned on public transport, junk food be banned from anywhere near schools.
The UK is now the nation with the most overweight and obese people in Europe, and we are also the most frequent snackers. The Mintel Report shows 66 per cent of British adults snack at least once a day and 37 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds say they regularly snack instead of having a proper meal.
In the US, the unrivalled Land of Snacks, a place where one in three kids will grow up to have Type II diabetes, (one in two if they’re Latino), 91 per cent of consumers snack multiple times a day and, according to food industry analysts, Hartman Group, 50 per cent of all ‘eatings’ are in snack form. Nearly 10 per cent never eat a proper meal at all. Snacking is big business. Estimated values of the global snacking market lies somewhere in the region of $161,937,000,000 – that’s trillions, isn’t it?
Dr Aseem Malhotra, Consultant Cardiologist at the Lister Hospital and a founding member of Action on Sugar says people don’t need to snack: “People only need two to three meals a day to get full nutritional and energy requirements – providing they eat real food. The food industry that deliberately produces highly addictive cheat ultra-processed junk that encourages overconsumption. I tell my patients if it comes out of a packet and has five or more ingredients, avoid it.”
The food industry has responded to critics and the boom in healthy eaters by investing in so-called “healthy” snacks, with added fibre, vitamins and reduced sugar. The global healthy snacks market is expected to be worth nearly 33 billion in 2025. Yet examine the ingredients and many of these snacks are not actually healthy at all.
Is it sensationalist and babyish to blame snacking for the obesity crisis? Nutritional Consultant and author, Ian Marber, says: “Snacking suits some people. But in general, it’s been oversold to us by the food industry as a solution to a hunger problem that didn’t really exist in the first place.
“It’s all about something to “keep you going” as though we will expire if we don’t eat every two hours which is nonsense. If you think back to the language used in the 60s and 70s when obesity levels were between 1-2 per cent, snacking was discouraged because it might ‘ruin the appetite’ and the appetite was something to be enjoyed.”
But there is a more complex arc to the anti-snacking story and that is one of if the body is asked to process food constantly then a person’s insulin resistance can be affected. Not everyone subscribes to this. Most people talk about calories in and out.
Nutritional therapist Kim Pearson, who specialises in weight loss, is bold about the frequency of eating being an issue not just in terms of calories, but also the constant triggering of the insulin response. The majority of her clients are obese and pre-diabetic. She is sympathetic about the compulsion to eat for reasons other than hunger.
“Of course, a snack can have its place. If you’ve eaten a decent lunch but aren’t going to be home until late don’t starve yourself for the sake of not snacking. But there is a difference between mindful snacking and mindless eating, which is what a lot of snacking is. The snacks that most people eat have no place in our life, aside from a very occasional treat. Even those that look healthy, like breakfast biscuits or energy bars will still raise your blood sugar and trigger an insulin response. Even eating something like a banana or a pack of raisins.” This is where it starts getting controversial. A banana, bad? “The odd banana’s fine, of course, it is, but if you’re constantly excessively raising your blood sugar levels with carbohydrate-heavy foods, then it has the potential to lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. Smart choices, particularly ones with healthy fats like olives or sugar-free nut butter are not likely to raise blood sugar levels significantly.”
Jo Murdoch, 48, a signwriter from Wakefield, went from nine stone to over eleven in three years when her family was going through some difficult times, “The snacking arrived with the stress. It’s like being a smoker, I needed something in my mouth all the time. My body was telling me I was hungry, but nothing really left me satisfied for long…in the afternoons I’d get the shakes because I’d eaten so many carbs all morning.”
She got control of her eating with a diet called Jane’s Plan that was delivered to her door, “It was a relief to know I could eat that and only that. It was a struggle at first. Food is everywhere, and if food has taken over your life for emotional reasons you don’t realise you’re doing this habitual eating, but putting on weight had sent my blood pressure up, I was pre-diabetic, my hips hurt. I retrained my eating habits. Now I see kids going in to Greggs or to MacDonalds for their after school snacks and it horrifies me.”
Saying all snackers will become overweight is like saying all national treasures will turn out to be paedophiles. Clearly, it’s not a priori. Two friends with IBS stood up for snacks, “If you’ve got even mild IBS, eating a big meal can mess you up for days and snacking becomes more of a necessity than anything.”
One very lean friend said, “I have a very physical job and am always picking at food.“
To call a clear causal link between snacks and obesity and/or diabetes is also problematic for academics. Dr Ada Garcia, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition, at the University of Glasgow says, “There is not enough evidence. If you feed a child every other hour there will be a state of insulin resistance but you could not possibly do a robust study like this on children. It would be cruel.”
Several people said their addiction to snacking was a result of it being the only way to eat in their workplace. “My diabetes arrived with the menopause,” says Poldark actress Beatie Edney. ”On set though, I’ve had a lifetime of no break, no set meals, just eating willy nilly. I am having success reversing diabetes with 16:8 intermittent fasting and a low carb diet. But what made a big difference, was simply, stopping snacking.”