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updated 9/14/2007 2:54:22 PM ET 2007-09-14T18:54:22

For some people, snacks can be a key to their good health and nutrition; for others, snacks may be their greatest downfall. Snacking itself is neither good nor bad. The effects of snacking depend upon what snack you choose and whether the snacks meet your nutritional needs.

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Excess weight can be a problem for older adults as for the rest of the population. However, for many older adults, calorie and nutrient consumption drop dramatically. This may be due to limited ability to get and prepare meals, decreased appetite as a side effect of certain medications, lack of enjoyment in meals alone and more. It is a problem, since research shows that after age 65, low intake of calories, protein and other nutrients can lead to unintentional weight loss, functional decline and earlier death.

A recent study involving more than 2,000 adults age 65 and older suggests that snacks may play a key role in maintaining the nutritional status of older Americans. The study found 84 percent of subjects reported snacking at least once a day, with 2.5 times the average. Snacks provided 22 percent of their calories. Snacking did not reduce mealtime eating, so snackers consumed about 250 more calories daily than non-snackers. The researchers concluded that for older adults whose meals are not meeting their nutritional needs, it may be easier to boost intake between meals than to push more into meals.

Don't wait too long
Snacks can help anyone who is facing a long interval between meals. Many parents refer to 5 p.m. as the hour at which their children seem to turn into monsters. Actually, the kids may simply be experiencing what many people feel when they suddenly become so hungry that temper sparks and concentration and energy evaporate. Adults forced to go too long between meals may also benefit from an appropriate snack, allowing them to enjoy the meal when it comes rather than eating too quickly, which can lead to overeating.

The key is to choose a snack that provides more than just a quick flash of energy. Snacks heavy in refined carbohydrates, such as candy, graham crackers and fruit punch, give a short burst of energy that your body quickly uses. These carbohydrate-rich snacks can leave you feeling worse than you did before.

For longer-lasting energy you can try fruit. The sugar in fruits is absorbed more slowly and provides an hour or two of energy for most people. For a snack with more enduring energy, try something that provides a little protein, like a cup of bean soup or some low-fat vanilla yogurt with a small box of raisins stirred in. Some substantial snacks include fruit with a piece of string cheese or peanut butter with whole wheat crackers.

The snacks you choose are important. Studies suggest that if we overdo on snacks, we will not necessarily compensate by eating less at our next meal. Many snack foods are just too high in calories to make up for in later meals. Those enticing scones and muffins run about 400 to 600 calories each. That’s about equal to three to five slices of bread topped with four to five pats of butter. We are especially unlikely to compensate for snack calories from beverages, such as regular soft drinks, sweet tea or fruit drinks.

Many Americans still aren’t reaching even the minimum recommendations of five servings a day of vegetables and fruits and three whole grains daily. Snacks can be the chance to set that right.

Many of us fall short on drinking the water we need. Try making a big glass of water a standard part of snacks. It may turn out that’s all you need. If you aren’t hungry, but rather bored, stressed or tired, don’t use snacks to provide something food can’t give. Try a mental break or a few minutes’ walk instead.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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