Your Genes May Be The Reason You’re a Snacker8 months ago | Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
There’s no denying it. Americans like to snack. Reportedly, 94 percent snack daily.
“Between 1950 and 2000, the United States became a nation of snackers. Manufacturers introduced a host of packaged snacks that catered to basic cravings for sugar, salt, and fat. By the 1980s, people were consuming snacks everywhere—at home, work, and school, and while in the car or walking down the sidewalk,” according to one source.
“Yet as these items became widely accessible and affordable, many questioned whether they were contributing to the loss of healthy eating patterns and the overconsumption of foods with little nutritional value.”
Recent numbers show that most Americans are reaching for snacks that are not the healthiest. For example, total salty snack sales in the U.S. were estimated to be around 27 billion dollars in 2017. And American salty snack market sales are predicted to be 29 billion dollars in 2022.
Packaged salty snacks, like potato chips and Cheez-It Crackers, are nutrient-void, processed and contain way more sodium than most people need. Although these foods are delicious, they are addicting and contribute to health issues such as hypertension. The packaging on these snacks can also be very misleading, as they may read “baked, not fried” or in some cases “low-fat.” And of course, consuming sugary snacks, like cookies, contributes to America’s obesity problem.
And to make matters worse, some people may be more prone to snacking than others. I am one of them. I recently took a test in which the results revealed that I have one copy of the genetic variant which makes me have “slightly increased susceptibility to extreme snacking behaviors.”
Some signs of this ‘snacking gene’ are hunger even when you’ve had three meals a day and craving for a snack every night. According to the report on my results, genetic factors could contribute to about 20 to 30 percent of this trait.
But environmental factors may outweigh the genetic influences responsible for my snacking tendencies. For example, if I don’t drink enough water (dehydration may make me feel hungry) or have a lazy day in front of the television, I may be more inclined to snack without limits. The good thing is there is a lot we can do to control the environmental factors relating to snacking.
It is up to us to choose the right snack.
If we snack on nutrient-dense foods, like carrots and hummus or fruit, which contain fiber, protein and essential vitamins and minerals, we may not have to feel bad about snacking (in moderation) because we are fueling our bodies with much needed nutrients. I use my snacking gene to my advantage by making sure most of my snacks are healthy and not just satisfying a craving for something salty or sweet. But I do still satisfy these cravings. For example, I may reach for a fruit smoothie, frozen grapes or lemon flavored water instead of a soda or cookies.
Another bonus is that if we eat nutrient-dense snacks, they will likely keep us more full and satisfied than a bowl of an empty calorie snack, like potato chips.
Then there are those who also may have a specific type of snacking gene.
There is evidence of this in children.
“The choices that children make when it comes to snacking could have a strong genetic foundation,” according to one report discussing a study that examined genes of taste receptors in preschool-aged children.
“The research team investigated whether genetic variants in taste receptors related to sweet preference, fat taste sensitivity, and aversion to bitter green leafy vegetables influence the snacks chosen by preschoolers.”
To my surprise, the results of the study showed that almost 80 percent of the children had at least one “potential at-risk genotype which may predispose them to poor snacking habits.” The children’s saliva was tested, and here are examples of how the genetic differences affected their snacking:
- Children with a sweet tooth had the gene related to sweet taste preference (these kids ate snacks in which most of the calories came from sugar. Another finding was that these kids ate most of these sugary snacks in the evening).
- Children with the gene variant related to fat taste sensitivity ate more snacks with higher energy density foods (basically meaning higher calories). “People with this genetic variant may have a low oral sensitivity to fat and therefore consume more fatty foods without sensing it, the researchers hypothesized.”
- There were also children with a genetic variant related to an aversion to bitter-tasting vegetables. For example, these children did not enjoy the taste of green leafy vegetables, which tend to have a more bitter taste. “They might be replacing those healthy veggies with unhealthy snacks,” said the lead study investigator. “This is why they may be consuming more energy-dense snacks because they are avoiding the healthy ones.” So it looks like these kids were ultra-sensitive to bitter taste and associated this taste with healthy veggies. This may explain why they would reach for foods on the opposite end of the spectrum, which, unfortunately, were unhealthy foods.
“Kids are eating a lot more snacks now than they used to, and we think looking at how genetics can be related to snacking behavior is important to understanding increased obesity among kids,” said one of the leads of the study.
“This new research could help parents understand how their kids taste and tailor their diet for better nutritional choices.”
But there is good news. Depending on the snacking gene your child may have, you can tailor their snacks to accommodate this gene. For example, with the sweet gene you can give your child foods like sweet potatoes, strawberries, honeydew, apricots and pomegranate. For those with the fat sensitivity, go for snacks like avocado on whole grain bread or nuts. And for those with the bitter gene, you can give them snacks with healthy fats (as previously listed) so that they are not reaching for unhealthy fats, like saturated fats, and prepare vegetables in a way that make them less bitter. For example, you can blanch greens to remove some of the bitter taste and pair them them with homemade dressings that contain a little bit of honey. Adding greens to fruit smoothies is another great way to mask vegetables that are more on the bitter side. Your kids won’t even know the greens are in the smoothie!
Check out some kid-friendly, plant-based snacks here and how to implement them in your household. And as we have previously discussed, herbs and spices may also be a secret weapon to get kids to eat more veggies.
So the next time you have a snack attack, just snack wisely. Your waistline, mood and overall health will thank you.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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