The snacking monster: the other villain to fight during COVID times

Photo credit: Henley Design Studio/via Unsplash

Just as the world keeps trying to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, another equally devastating evil has arisen, slowly creeping out of our pantries and fridges: the snacking monster! And who hasn’t been spending their semi-isolated and under socialised weekends at home idly munching their sorrows away? However, the effects that over-snacking can have on your vitamin and mineral intake and your overall health as well as on your immune system should not go unnoticed, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

It is no secret that we eat when we are bored, and lately we seem to be bored a lot more often. The coronavirus crisis has confined us in our households, deprived of outdoor entertainment and physical activity, and working from home has us now always within seconds of our overstocked fridges (a sequalae of the 2020 panic buying). So in order to save us from the dullness of lockdown we resort to food. Whether we cook it, order it, bake it or eat it directly from a bag, there is no question that food is one of the greatest stimulants that humans have right now. We all had to endure the sourdough and banana bread fever less than a year ago, but new foodie trends have emerged. Check social media if you do not believe me!

But snacking has been an issue even on pre-COVID times. Snacks, specifically the unhealthy kind, are particularly appealing when eating out of boredom. This is something that the industry takes advantage of to appeal to the consumers. A considerable amount of research goes into designing the perfect levels of saltiness, sweetness, and even crunchiness to make them as satisfying and desirable as possible. Moreover, the fact that they come in ready-made and attractive packaging it makes them almost impossible to resist.

The problem is that the over consumption of these snacks, which are considered energy-dense foods due to their high content of fat and sugar, comes hand in hand with weight-increase, unhealthier habits, and a phenomenon called micronutrient dilution. Micronutrient dilution refers to the displacement of nutrient-rich foods (high in vitamins and minerals) such as fruits and vegetables, by the consumption of energy-dense foods, which are usually low in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). 

In our study, published in Nutrition & Metabolism last year, we explored the phenomenon of micronutrient dilution in relation to the intake of added sugar. Added sugars are those sugars that are not naturally occurring in foods and beverages, but that are added during the processing, manufacturing or at the table. This means that added sugar is potentially a type of sugar that could be eliminated from our diets without any collateral effects on our health status. Our study looked at the intake of nine key micronutrients in two adult Swedish samples of adults, covering a period of over two decades and compared them to their added sugar intakes. Unsurprisingly, we observed that the higher the added sugar intake, the lower the micronutrient intake. For micronutrients such as Vitamin D, selenium, or folate, this effect was particularly worrying, as up to 85% of the participants with the highest added sugar intake were not even meeting the recommendations issued by the latest Nordic Nutrition Recommendations.

A low level of micronutrient intake can not only cause disease on its own, but it is also the stepping stone to developing many other diseases and weakening our immune system. This is a particularly relevant piece of information, since nowadays we need our immune systems to be strong enough to fight the very same virus that is keeping us confined. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme have issued guidelines recommending us to reduce the intake of foods high in sugar, fat and salt to keep our immune systems working as they should. Moreover, it has been suspected that obese people have not only up to a 33% higher risk of dying from COVID-19 but also a higher chance of developing worse symptoms that those with lower weight. So those guidelines also highlight the importance of eating a healthy overall diet and to be as active as the situation allows us in order to keep our weight within healthy limits.

So it seems quite obvious that we should not fall prey to our inner snacking monster and try to eat as healthily as possible. Perhaps, this pandemic could be an opportunity in disguise to be more mindful about the way we eat, to find healthier alternatives to the old snacks that our monsters crave and to take care of our bodies and our health, not just during COVID times, but always.

To read more about Micronutrient Dilution, you can also check the Q&A I did for BMC’s blog On health.

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