Sharon Stephenson investigates the pros and cons of snacking and peeks into the snack boxes of three Kiwi celebrities.

Her name was Gretchen and she was the most exotic person to ever cross the threshold of our grimy student flat. Tall, beautiful, mysterious and seemingly immune to the issues that burdened the rest of us - such as lectures and exams - Gretchen was our girl crush long before anyone thought to put those two words together.

But possibly the most interesting thing about Gretchen was her diet: every morning she would assemble a collection of snacks in a Tupperware container to be methodically grazed on throughout the day. That included, but wasn't limited to, Twisties, dried apricots, popcorn, dry-roasted almonds and green M&Ms ("The only ones I can eat," she'd say with a dramatic flourish). Sometimes a wedge of cheddar would make an appearance, other times a jar of briny pickles or a family-sized bag of chippies.

For those of us who'd grown up with three meals a day and little, if anything, in between, Gretchen's single-minded dedication to snacking was a revelation. "Snacks are so much more interesting than meals," she'd say, as if that explained her disordered eating.

I've long since lost contact with Gretchen but she would no doubt be thrilled at how enthusiastically the planet has embraced the snacking trend.

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Prior to World War II, snacks were considered a rare treat associated with special events such as fairs or birthday parties but these days nibbling between meals is considered something of a global sport. An American survey in 2013 showed, for example, that one in five eating occasions involves snacks, and that nearly a quarter of the average American's daily calories come from between-meal noshing. Oh and 90 per cent of all Americans snack multiple times a day, even exchanging meals for snacks.

In Britain they aren't far behind, with supermarket giant Sainsburys recently claiming that one in five Brits is too busy to eat three meals a day. What's more, research shows that more than half of all British women snack twice a day (and 80 per cent of those snackers immediately feel guilty about doing so).

In New Zealand, figures aren't kept for how often Kiwis reach for the biscuit tin or vending machine, although a 2014 Nielsen report showed that our snack industry is worth around $900 million and our favourite way to fill in the gaps is with fresh fruit, followed closely by chocolate and chippies.

But what is about the combination of crunch, carbs, fat and salt that has turned us into the so-called generation graze? According to Wellington dietitian Sarah Elliott, people eat between meals for a number of reasons, including a need to satisfy cravings for sweet and salty foods, to prevent or relieve hunger, boost nutrient intake, control weight, fight boredom or deal with emotional issues. Not to mention those who believe the old chestnut about eating several small meals a day in order to rev up their metabolism.

"I had a client this morning who thought she had to eat at least six times a day to keep up her metabolic rate," says Elliott.

But that belief has been largely discredited by the scientific community. Instead, the focus now is on total energy consumed, as in how much energy you're taking in over the whole day. "That could be 2000 calories a day split over five meals or three. It's different for everyone."

Where it can all go horribly wrong is when snacks routinely exceed total energy requirements. Studies show, for example, that just one extra daily snack above your daily energy consumption - for example, two plain biscuits or a can of sugary drink - could add around 3-4kg a year.

It doesn't help that food technology has improved dramatically over the past decade, with producers optimising their snacks to overwhelm our brain's defences and tap into its reward pathways.

Here's how it works: say you open a box of Pringles. Your brain automatically views this as a challenge to finish the whole thing, so it releases some of the neurotransmitter dopamine to get you started. That dopamine drives you to take the first bite, which releases more dopamine and pushes you to keep eating until the box is finished. Which is no doubt why some wag at Pringles created the tagline "once you pop, you can't stop".

But when it's late afternoon, you've had a stressful day and it feels as though lunch was hours ago, what should you do?

The key, says Elliott, is to listen to your hunger. "Snacking can be important if you're mindful of what works for you and you're prepared. Depending on what you choose, snacking can be an opportunity to introduce more tasty, nutritious food into your diet."

She suggests asking yourself, "Am I genuinely hungry, or am I bored, thirsty or tired? Do I want a snack or do I need a snack? We run clinics where we ask clients where they feel hungry - so, for example, if you feel hungry in your throat or mouth then that's not usually real hunger. But when get a hollow sensation in your stomach, that's genuine hunger and that's generally when you need a snack."

Of course, not all snacks are considered equal, so the key is to generally choose options containing a balance of protein and fibre. For example, apple slices with peanut butter, a handful of nuts, a slice of grainy toast with hummus or even cheese and crackers are good options to keep you going until your next meal.

Another tip is to follow the snack manufacturer's lead and cut fruit into bite-sized pieces. Food companies know that when snacks are bite-sized, people eat more of them because they can eat them mindlessly. Which isn't great when you're guzzling chocolate, but isn't too bad when you're eating fruit.

And as for that mindless eating? Elliott says it's important to draw a distinction between having a healthy snack to top up the tank between meals and unconsciously shovelling food into your gob while watching television, chatting on the phone or doing some other activity that diverts your full attention from the enjoyment of eating.

"It's about paying attention to what you're eating. Savour your food, chew it and enjoy it. The more you focus on the food you're eating, the more dopamine will be released and the more satisfying it will become."

MY SNACKING DIARY: Josh Thomson, Presenter on Three's The Project

"This morning I flew back to Auckland from Timaru after filming my father for our web series, SubjectDad. After a weekend of indulging in too much whitebait, blue cod and whisky, I decided to make a real effort today.

"Snack-wise, the flight from Timmers offered no in-flight service, so I was well behaved. Wellington, however, was a disaster. Somehow I got into the Koru Lounge, where I went insane. My earlier porridge breakfast was supplemented by two further scrambled egg and Kransky-laden breakfasts. To make up for it, I loudly declined both the cookie and cassava chips on the flight to Auckland. I'm sure everyone was impressed.

"Someone brought a snack platter to the The Project's afternoon meeting but I avoided the Whittaker's chocolate bars and hit the bowl of carrot sticks hard. Real hard. My bites were audibly interrupting people trying to decide the first line of questioning for our political interview.

"Around 11pm I indulged in the genius combination of a stick of edam cheese dunked in Greek-style yoghurt. If you're up for an evening of wild nightmares, I'd thoroughly recommend it."

MY SNACKING DIARY: Laurel Devenie, Actress (plays Kate Nathan on Shortland Street)

Laurel Devenie.
Laurel Devenie.

"I've always eaten pretty healthily but a couple of weeks ago I saw a nutritionist who encouraged me to include carbs and protein in my meals and snacks. Today, for example, I had eggs on toast for breakfast, lunch was salad and dinner was brown rice and tofu.

"Around 9.30am I had a handful of brazil nuts, although sometimes I'll snack on a boiled egg. I try to avoid the 3pm slump with a bowl of oats and soy milk. Yesterday I made a bowl of guacamole which I ate with raw broccoli.

"I try not to snack after dinner but today I needed chocolate, so around 10pm I had a couple of rows of Whittaker's Almond Gold. But my ultimate snack, which I save for long road trips, is salty Kettle Chips. I wish I didn't love them so much - but I do."

MY SNACKING DIARY: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Vodafone Warriors Captain/Full-Back

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

"I'm always conscious of eating healthy, nutritious snacks and meals. Today we had a gym session, so I had three eggs and one piece of toast with avocado for breakfast. When we have a field session, I'll start with a protein smoothie made of oats, protein, an egg, banana, a green supplement and a teaspoon of peanut butter. This is pretty much my go-to snack. For lunch I had chicken and vegetables, then I snacked on a cup of rice with meat when I got home after training later in the afternoon. For dinner it was meat and vegetables with sweet potatoes (I don't eat standard potatoes). There was no snacking between dinner and bed.

"While the NRL season is over for the club, it isn't for me. I'm hoping to play for the Kiwis at the Rugby League World Cup, so I'm training for that and keeping my nutrition in check. For me that means sticking to my usual snacks of protein smoothies and rice with some meat."