Snack Frequency: Associations with Healthy and Unhealthy Food Choices

We examined associations between snack frequency, socio-demographic characteristics (gender, age), body-mass index (BMI) and eating behavior. Data were based on the SwissFood Panel questionnaire from 2010 that was filled in by 6,189 individuals. Participants indicated how often they usually consume the following food groups: meat (beef, pork, chicken, processed meat), sweet, high-fat foods (cookies, chocolate, sweet pastries), savouries (e.g. chips), convenience food (ready-to eat food), fruits and vegetables.

Additionally, the consumption frequency of sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. Fanta, cola) was also assessed. The eating behaviour of all participants was further characterized by the frequency of main meals, the frequency of snacks (i.e. food consumption between main meals) and the frequency of main meals in front of the television. Eating related health consciousness, BMI and physical activity of more than 30 minutes per day were also assessed.

Women snack more than men

A comparison of the eating behaviour of men and women showed that women eat, on average, seven snacks per week, which is more than men’s average snack consumption (five snacks per week).

In general, women had a higher eating related health consciousness and made better dietary food choices, indicated by a higher intake of fruits and vegetables as well as a lower consumption frequency of meat, convenience food and sugar-sweetened beverages. Additionally, women skip main meals (such as breakfast) less often.

In a second step, it was thought to investigate if differences in snack frequencies are associated with differences in food frequencies and lifestyle factors.

For that purpose, the entire study population was divided into three groups (tertiles) according to their reported snack frequency per week: high, moderate and low. High frequency snack consumers ate, on average, twelve snacks per week, and low frequency snack consumers ate, on average, one snack per week. The dietary behaviours in the highest snack-frequency group were different from those in the lowest group with respect to the higher consumption frequency of all food

groups,!with!the!exception!of!vegetable!consumption!in!females.!Participants!in!the!high! snack frequency!group were more likely to be young women with children. In contrast, male respondents with a low snack frequency were more likely to be older, ate main meals on a more regular basis, and indicated having family meals more often than male respondents with a high frequency of snack consumption. There were no differences in the percentage of respondents who indicated that they were physically active for more than 30 minutes per week.

High snack frequency and food choices

Healthy and unhealthy eating behaviours were associated with the frequency of snack consumption. A high snack frequency was, therefore, associated with a higher consumption of fruits, but also with a higher consumption of sweet, high-fat foods and savouries. Additionally, increasing snack frequency was associated with watching TV during main meals. Another significant predictor for snack frequency was age: the older the age of a person, the lower the snack frequency.

Clusters of high frequency snack consumers

In the final step, a cluster analysis was conducted with fruit, vegetables, meat, convenience food and sweet and savouries as clustering variables. Only high frequency snack consumers were included in this analysis. Three groups with different underlying eating patterns were identified: healthy, moderate and unhealthy groups (Figure 1). High frequency snack consumers in the healthy group were characterized by a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, and a low consumption of sweet, high-fat foods, savouries and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Conclusions: High snack frequency occurred in the context of healthy as well as unhealthy dietary behaviour and lifestyle patterns. Women made healthier dietary food choices and were more likely to consume fruits as snacks, while men chose unhealthy foods, such as sweets and savouries, more often.

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