The Psychology of Snacking

Why do people snack between meals? Because they’re hungry, maybe.

But you know psychologists are going to dig a little deeper than that. Several studies have revealed a range of psychological factors in why people snack, what they snack on, and how much they snack.

Most recently, a study published in Psychology & Health examined how people’s moods influenced their snacking behavior.

Now, you might expect that people would snack more when they’re feeling down as a way of cheering themselves up, but that’s not what the study found. In fact, it turned out that when people experienced more negative affect, they ended up consuming fewer calories by snacking.

On the other hand, being in a good mood led people to increase their snacking behavior, but only for specific groups of people. In particular, men and young adults tended to snack more in response to being in a better mood. Women and people in other age groups didn’t snack more when their mood increased on average. These results suggest that for some people, especially men and young people, positive rather than negative affect could drive snacking.

Other research has looked not just at how much people snack but what they snack on.

For example, a study published earlier this year explored people’s snacking behavior in the workplace. It found that what kinds of snacks people consumed depended partly on their workplace environment and whether their workplace had a climate that emphasized healthy eating.

Additionally, people’s snacking behavior appeared to be driven by two competing motives: watching out for their health, and regulating their moods. The more people’s snacking behavior was guided by health concerns, the more they consumed fruits and cereal bars – and the less they consumed sweets. On the other hand, people whose snacking was driven by a desire to regulate their moods ate more sweets on average.

Finally, a 2015 study found people’s snacking is also influenced by how susceptible they are to food cues. In particular, the study showed that people who score higher on the “Power of Food” questionnaire, which measures how much people react to thoughts about food, the taste of food, and so on, tend to snack more in a variety of different situations – including when they’re trying to regulate their moods, when they’re alone, and when they’re engaged in activities.

Taken together, these results show that people’s snacking behavior can be driven by a variety of different psychological variables, from what kind of mood they’re in to where they work to how attentive they are to food in general. Snacking may seem like a simple enough behavior, but the reasons different people snack differently are quite complex in the end.

Image: Flickr/anyjazz65