Are snacks a good thing or a bad thing for Healthy Eating?

All of us have snacked at one time, and like many participants in research studies, we may have mixed feelings about snacking. On the one hand, we might feel guilty for "not waiting until mealtime." But we also might feel like a snack is just right—not too much, not too little, quick, tasty, and practical. When health researchers have looked at snacking as an eating practice, they have uncovered some fascinating relationships between snacking, overall eating, and health. And we think that you may end up with a new view of snacking after reading over the research findings below.

First, it is true that some participants in research studies dismiss that snacking could be an eating practice that might somehow be good for our health. This group of study participants views snacking as an unbalanced approach to eating that involves poorly prepared foods or is altogether lacking in real food. Seen from this perspective, snacks are "second best" to meals and lacking in health benefits. We've seen one study on U.S. adults that shows less than 2% of all snacking calories to come from the vegetables food group, as compared with 21% of snack calories from desserts and sweets, or 16% from chips and crackers. While these percentages suggest a partial truth to the idea that snacking can involve lower quality foods, the total for all of the percentages above is still only 39%, leaving over half of all snack choices to involve other food groups including fruits, dairy and eggs, meats and poultry, nuts and seeds, or grains.

Studies on snacking also show that unhealthy snacking can be predicted from an evaluation of the circumstances involved. For example, we are more likely to select low-nutrient snacks whenever we eat at a "non-designated eating location." Non-designated eating locations are simply places where routine eating is not expected. These locations include our car, a hallway at work, or the aisle in a department store. As compared with our home kitchens, dining rooms, and restaurants, we are more likely to choose low-nutrient snacks at these other locations. Interestingly, we are also more likely to choose low-nutrient snacks when we visit other people's homes, provided that we have not been invited over to share a meal. For example, if we head over to someone's house to watch TV, we are more likely to choose a low-nutrient snack. This choice of "non-designated" locations is also associated with unpredictable and unplanned snacking versus predictable and planned snacking.

Snacks from the desserts and sweets group are associated with high body mass index (BMI) in research studies, while snacks from the vegetables group are associated with lower BMI. In addition, snacks per se have been associated with health benefits in the following particular context: when combined with 3 regular meals, a 3-snack-plus-3-meal eating plan has been associated with better health benefits than a 2-meal-plus-no-scheduled-snack plan in which a person skips breakfast and then engages in "catch-up" eating with oversized meals at lunch and dinner.

At WHFoods, we interpret all of the findings above as pointing in a consistent direction related to "snack approach." Our approach to snacking appears to be a top priority if we want to incorporate snacks into Healthy Eating. Not only is it helpful for us to eat snacks in a location designed for eating and choose snacks from naturally occurring food groups, but it is also helpful if we treat snacks as real foods that are meant to be eaten slowly and savored. Slower eating of snacks (and also meals) has been linked to lower BMI and better weight management. In addition, slower eating of snacks has been linked to better satiety as well as satiation. Researchers use these two terms—"satiety" and "satiation"—to refer to different types of eating satisfaction. "Satiety" refers to a feeling of physical fullness. "Satiation" refers to an end in our desire to continue eating. Both aspects of satisfaction are important. Most of us have experienced that moment when we feel physically full from eating but still have a desire to eat because of delicious taste or other reasons. When we slow down our snacking and treat snack foods no differently than meal foods, we are likely to get more health benefits.

In this context, it is also worth noting several key changes in the snacking habits of U.S. adults between the 1970's and recent years. Forty years ago, about 75% of all adults reported eating three main meals each day. Today, that percentage has dropped to about 60%. In addition, our total calorie intake from lunch and dinner has dropped during this time period while our intake of calories between lunch and dinner has increased. In keeping with this trend, our percentage of daily calories from snacks has gone up (and includes increased calories from afternoon snacks), while our percentage of daily calories from meals has gone down. At WHFoods, we view these trends as reflecting an undesirable snacking approach in which snacks are approached differently than real foods and end up compensating for missed meals or demanding schedules that pose a problem for Healthy Eating.

Given all of the factors above, our WHFoods conclusions and recommendations about snacking are as follows.

From our perspective at WHFoods, it never makes sense to disregard the amazing benefits of Healthy Eating and the unique pleasures of our WHFoods regardless of their incorporation into a meal or a snack. These foods can do every bit as much for you when consumed as snacks versus meals, if you will only give them a chance to do so. And if you are looking for a great example of a 3-meal, 2-snack approach with outstanding nutrient richness and total daily calories in the 1800-1900 calorie range, we encourage you to look over the Smart Way of Eating Plan on our website or the Smart Menu in our cookbook.

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