As the hectic holiday season kicks off and busy lifestyles become even busier, what’s the role of snacking to keep your energy up and your body weight down?


First, who do you think has a healthier diet – people who snack once a day or those who snack two to three times a day? You may be surprised to learn that consumers with the healthiest diets snack twice as often as those with less healthy diets, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research company known for keeping its fingers on the pulse of what Americans are eating.


Kathy Ross, a research analyst for NPD, said the results of the company’s “Snacking in America” survey, which collected data for two years, were a bit of a surprise.


“The health aspect as an offshoot is something we did not anticipate,” she said. “People were not replacing meals with snacks, and they were making healthy choices such as more fruit, yogurt, granola bars, nuts and seeds.”


Bottled water saw the biggest increase as the beverage paired with snacks. The survey identified “healthy snackers” as those who were in weight-loss programs, had healthy weights and whose food intake met the description of a healthy diet. More women and consumers older than age 50 fell into this group. By the way, the NPD survey found that women snack 70 times more than men during the year.


“Snacking is more often a hallmark that goes hand in hand with healthy habits,” Ross said.


Those who reported eating only one snack per day fell into the least healthy group, and most often chose a late-night snack of chips, ice cream or cookies. But Ross said there’s less of this impulsive “raid the fridge at midnight” behavior going on.


“Late-night snacking is the only snack occasion going down,” she said, “and we’re seeing more healthy planned snacks.”


A snack occasion is defined as the food eaten between the major three meals, and it’s interesting to note that some folks are even eating a “before breakfast snack,” which might be the coffee you grab on your way to dine out for breakfast.


Fresh fruit is the most popular snack eaten between breakfast and lunch, according to the NPD survey, and 85 percent of households reported having fresh fruit on hand at home.


Ideally, a snack should total about 150 calories if you’re consuming a daily diet of 2,000 to 2,200 calories. It should be like a mini-meal with a balance of protein, whole grains and fruit or vegetable. That means it could be a carton of yogurt with granola on top with some berries or a savory snack of whole-grain crackers, reduced-fat cheese and a small apple.