The line between meals and snacks is blurring, as one report estimates that snacking now constitutes half of all eating occasions. What does this growing trend mean for how eating habits support health and vitality?
This “snackification” of eating habits may be a response to conflicting and extended work and family activity schedules. Or it may reflect increased numbers of people living alone, a decreased desire to cook on a daily basis, or a variety of other factors.
Whatever is behind this trend, it’s becoming widespread enough that it’s important to consider in strategies for healthy eating. And for health professionals, it’s clear that asking people only about breakfast, lunch and dinner may be missing some important details.
Are Snacks the New Meals?
When snacks account for a large proportion of eating occasions, a growing trend reported by The Hartman Group’s Eating Occasions Compass report, this may reflect snacking multiple times each day in addition to standard meal times. But for some people, snacks are replacing one or more traditional meals.
Either way, that means that when you think about how eating either promotes or gets in the way of health and vitality, we can’t ignore the influence of snacks. A national study of U.S. eating habits concluded that 22% of adults’ total calorie consumption comes from snacks. And while snacks provide more than a third of sugar consumed, they provide only 18% of dietary fiber.
- For U.S. adults overall, that suggests that snacks are an add-on, not a replacement for meals. Snacks can be a tool to sustain energy or keep hunger in check between meals. Snacks also provide an opportunity to “fill the gaps” by providing healthful foods that are low in regular meals. Unfortunately, the data suggest that snacks simply provide extra calories more often than they boost healthful plant-focused eating.
- For a growing portion of the population, snacks seem to be replacing one or more meals as people rush to work, skip lunch in favor of either work or work-out, or hustle to juggle evening activities for themselves or their children.
- Some people may choose snacking – “grazing” — instead of meals because they’ve heard that it’s a way to “boost metabolism” and enhance weight loss. A closer look at the research shows that this kind of eating pattern is linked to lower weight mainly in cross-sectional studies. If lean people eat this way, this type of study can’t establish that grazing is why they’re lean. Actually, the effects of eating frequency on weight are not clear-cut. Some studies that follow people over time link more frequent snacking with more weight gain. One important influence seems to be the choice of snack foods.
Challenges for Healthy Eating
What You Choose for Snacks
Calories, Added Sugars and Sodium are concentrated in many packaged “snack foods”. If these choices are your typical snack, even small handfuls or mini-packs add up when scattered throughout the day. And that can gradually lead to weight gain and raise your risk of heart disease. On a more immediate level, the energy boost you get may be short-lived.
Nutritional gaps remain unfilled when choice of snack foods is based only on habit and what’s at hand. For many adults, foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and dairy foods (or non-dairy alternative sources of calcium) supply “shortfall nutrients” that are often below recommended levels. In addition, many people fall short on fish consumption recommended for heart and brain health.
Packaging waste may not be a direct health issue, but it is an issue for the health of our planet. Foods and beverages play a large role in packaging waste, and snack choices can be key contributors. Choices that are healthier for you could also be healthier for the planet.
How You Snack
Aimless, Mindless, or Mindful? Aimless snacking is estimated to account for 20% of snacks, according to a report from The Hartman Group. That’s a term referring to eating that’s driven by an awareness of the availability of food, rather than trying to fulfill any particular physical, emotional, social or cultural desire. In addition, there’s snacking in response to boredom, stress and other needs. If the cue prompting a snack is completely unrelated to nutritional needs or hunger, focus on what else can meet those needs, instead of a “better” snack.
What happens to family meals? If more snacking means fewer family meals, that’s a concern. Studies show that shared meals tend to be more nutritious and to contribute to an overall more healthful eating pattern. For families raising children, there’s a whole month dedicated to letting people know that family meals contribute to better emotional health, behavior choices and family communication.Snacks have long been a part of cultural eating habits in countries with an extended time between lunch and dinner. Whether snacking between meals – or as part of the growing trend to replace some meals – supports health or works against it depends on the choices you make.Click To Tweet
How to Make the Snacking Trend Healthful
Snacks to Help Fill Gaps
To use snacking as a chance to help fill gaps between your usual eating habits and eating patterns that promote optimal health, step back from a mindset of what makes a “snack food”. Focus on options for foods that tend to run short in your diet that provide flavor you enjoy and convenience that fits your lifestyle. Some snacks may need to be portable, but surveys show that much of our snacking actually occurs right at home.
Veggie-up: Many people run low on vegetables compared to what’s found in healthful eating patterns.
Keep a couple days’ chopped vegetables on hand – either chopping extra as you prep dinner, or as pick-up items at a salad bar. They can be delicious alone. But if you’re struggling to with enjoyment of raw veggies, pairing them with a dip can turn them into a treat you love.
Doable tip: While packaged ranch dressing may be the familiar go-to, have fun experimenting with other options that may not raise your day’s tally of sodium and saturated fat as much. Hummus can be a great choice, but don’t stop there.
- Everything White Bean Dip incorporates the flavors of the popular “everything” bagels into a dip created by registered dietitian nutritionist Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD. I love that it helps fill not only the veggie gap, but also the gap many people have in how seldom they eat pulses (like dried beans and lentils) compared to recommended amounts. I also love that this includes a delicious option for those of us who don’t always have a jar of tahini at the ready.
- Southwestern Greek Yogurt Dip was developed by another colleague, Amy Gorin, RDN, that supplies a little protein, too. I’ve found in experimenting with different brands of plain (unflavored) yogurt that some provide a delicious flavor in a reduced-fat product, which would bring saturated fat even a little lower.
Savor Some Fruit: For a sweet pick-me-up without the roller coaster effects on your blood sugar and energy, fruit is a great choice. And it’s so much more filling than comparable calories from most sweets.
Doable tip: Peanut butter spread on apple or pear slices is a classic quick and yummy snack.
Go Nuts: For a super-portable snack with fiber, protein and healthy fat, it’s hard to beat nuts. If you’ve been afraid that nuts would promote weight gain, think again. Multiple studies show that people who consume more nuts tend to gain slightly less weight each year than people who rarely eat them. Use common sense, of course. — Don’t let the “health halo” of all the nutrient benefits of nuts convince you that sitting down with a jar or can of nuts is a smart idea. Instead, pour a modest handful (about ¼ cup) into a small dish.
Doable tip: You can find some nuts that are flavored (with Tamari or cocoa powder, for example) for extra flavor. And often these contain only small amounts of added sugar or sodium, unlike snack foods such as candy, cookies or chips (check the label). Or save money — simply toast plain nuts in the oven or toaster over on a cookie pan (5-10 minutes at 350 degrees) and store to use as desired. You can season them in many ways, such as this recipe from California Walnuts.
Re-Energize with Yogurt: Either a dairy- or soy-based yogurt offers the chance for a snack with protein that can help stave off hunger pangs before your next meal. Note: although yogurts made from coconut milk and nut milks (almond milk, cashew milk and others) may contain live active cultures like traditional yogurt, protein content is very low compared to dairy or soy yogurts.
Doable tip: Despite their health halo, “fruit-flavored” yogurts do not provide the fiber or nutrients of a serving of fruit. What they do have is added sugar — a small container has as much as if you’d crumbled a couple sandwich cookies into plain yogurt. Save money by getting a large container of plain yogurt (regular or Greek style as you prefer). Spoon a serving into a cereal bowl and top with a full serving of your choice of fruit. Sprinkle with a dash of cinnamon for a sweet flavor without added sugar.
When Snacks Replace Meals
If you want snacking to replace a meal, think about choices that can sustain hunger and energy, rather than setting you up on a roller coaster that leaves you functioning far from your best, or coming back for food so many times that you outpace the calorie level that supports a healthy weight.
For many people, the snack-instead-of-a-meal trend is not because they’re on the run. They simply want choices that can be pulled together from food on hand that requires as little preparation as possible.
If that sounds familiar, it doesn’t mean you need to give up on healthy eating.
Strategy #1: Creatively re-purpose leftovers. Whether you intentionally make extra amounts once or twice a week to have food for other meals, or you’re saving time and money by reducing food waste, leftovers offer a fabulous “night off” from making a meal.
- Roasting vegetables is a wonderful way to bring out their flavor, and making enough to use in different ways throughout the week is a strategy recommended by my colleague Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE. Check tip #5 on her list of Easy Ways to Eat More Vegetables.
- Leftover chicken can be combined with black beans and raw or leftover cooked vegetables and rolled up in a lettuce leaf or whole grain tortilla. For details on this easy way to combine lean protein with fiber- and nutrient-rich ingredients, check this post from Jennifer Hunt, RDN.
- Most Americans don’t eat recommended amounts of fish. Did you know that if you bake, microwave or sauté fish one night, you can safely keep any extra for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator? That means you need only cook it once to meet the recommended twice a week goal! Combine leftover fish with whatever veggies you have on hand to make fish tacos, add it to pasta, or use it to turn a salad into a main dish.
Strategy #2: Keep a stash of quick-fix healthy foods. If you think that all “convenience” foods are the same, think again. Stock your cabinets and freezer with favorites you can pull together quickly.
- Canned tuna adds flavor and nutrition to this Basil & Olive Oil Flatbread, ready in 15 minutes.
- Canned black beans and frozen corn can combine with whatever fresh or frozen vegetables you have on hand in a wide range of dishes. This recipe for salsa suggests serving it with whole grain tortilla chips. (For less sodium, make your own chips by using a pizza cutter to slice up fresh tortillas, sprinkle with seasonings and toast in the oven.) Try this salsa as a topping for a bed of salad greens, too. And if it’s a snack that’s replacing a meal, if you aren’t including some other source of protein, add in a little grated cheese, canned tuna or leftover fish or chicken.
- Canned chickpeas are another staple that’s never missing from my pantry. Here’s a salad that registered dietitian Maggie Farley pulls together in 5 minutes to eat in a bowl, roll up in lettuce leaves, or serve on whole grain bread or crackers.
- Frozen harvest bowls from Green Giant include vegetarian sources of protein. Since they have less than 300 calories, they aren’t enough for a whole meal. But if you keep some on hand, you can use them as an anchor and combine them with other nutrient-rich foods.
- Frozen bowls from Wildscape are another option to keep on hand. I find the flavor of both the portobellos with sweet potato, black beans and mango; as well as the cauliflower with Brussels sprouts, chickpeas and quinoa versions far beyond the dull and ordinary. These bowls don’t have quite enough protein to substitute for a meal on their own. But in less than 10 minutes, you can prepare fish or tofu and microwave the flavorful mixed bowl to use as a topping.
- Fresh bowls with a variety of pre-prepped vegetables can’t be kept on hand indefinitely, but when you know you’ll need a quick-fix snack-meal, plan ahead or stop on your way home and get an easy head start. The Green Giant Fresh bowls come in a variety of flavor combinations that make a delicious filling for whole wheat pita bread, flatbread or wraps. Or expand the bowl by combining it with a leftover cooked whole grain like quinoa or brown rice. Add a source of protein, like some cubed tofu or tempeh, drained and rinsed canned beans, or leftover fish or chicken. Presto, those leftovers don’t look like leftovers anymore!
Strategy #3: Think beyond “snack foods” when you want finger foods. That cozy, casual feeling of eating without silverware doesn’t have to mean you’re limited to packaged snack foods.
- Roasted chickpeas can be a delicious and fun way to get the fiber and nutrients of pulses. My colleague Amy Gorin, RDN, explains easy ways to make healthy roasted chickpeas in 5 different flavor options. You may also want to sample some of the many packaged roasted chickpeas. But check Nutrition Facts panels as you choose – all are better than potato chips or cookies as sources of fiber and protein, but brands differ in sodium, added sugar and added fats.
- Edamame (soy beans) are another great choice that supply plant-based protein and healthy fats. Dietitian Genevieve Masson, MSc, RD, CSSD, says she likes to buy the frozen ones, heat up in the microwave for a few minutes, and season to taste.
- Nachos can be a healthful choice, too, if you choose the right ingredients. These Mediterranean Nachos, created by USA Pulses, can be ready in 15 minutes.
Bottom Line on the Growth of Snacking:
Well-chosen snacks can help maintain energy and concentration, and help fill nutritional gaps not met by your meals. However, despite headline hype, they are not a magic answer for a healthy weight. If you randomly choose snacks without considering how they fit with the rest of your eating choices, or consume them mindlessly unaware of amounts you’re consuming, snacking can lead to unhealthy weight gain. So if snacking fits your lifestyle, whether it’s to keep hunger at bay between meals or to replace some meals, follow the tips here for doable ways to support your health and vitality.
Would you like a free tip sheet – Easy Nutrition Upgrades – with easy tweaks to make your eating even more healthful? Click here to find out how to get it & receive Smart Bytes® by email.
As you know from previous Smart Bytes® posts, I consider learning to include pulses like dried beans and lentils more often a step that can pay off in many ways for most of us. Fortunately, whether your eating style is more likely to include them as slow-cooked chili and soup or quick-fix and snack-style choices, there are many delicious options to explore. If you need ideas, USA Pulses Half-Cup Habit program is worth checking out.
As Snackification in Food Culture Becomes More Routine, Traditional Mealtimes Get Redefined. The Hartman Group Newsletter. February 16, 2016.
Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2015. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC. [See Part D, Chapter 1 for a review of shortfall nutrients.]
Hess JM, Jonnalagadda SS, Slavin JL. What Is a Snack, Why Do We Snack, and How Can We Choose Better Snacks? A Review of the Definitions of Snacking, Motivations to Snack, Contributions to Dietary Intake, and Recommendations for Improvement. Advances in Nutrition. 2016;7(3):466-475.
Liu X, Li Y, Guasch-Ferré M, et al. Changes in nut consumption influence long-term weight change in US men and women. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2019;bmjnph-2019-000034. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2019-000034
St-Onge MP, Ard J, Baskin ML, et al. Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017;135:e96–e121.
Van Horn L, Carson JAS, Appel LJ, et al. Recommended Dietary Pattern to Achieve Adherence to the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology (AHA/ACC) Guidelines: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016;134(22):e505-e529.
The Hartman Group, Eating Occasions Compass (2017).
What We Eat in America, NHANES 2015-2016, individuals 2 years and over (excluding breast-fed children), day 1. Available: www.ars.usda.gov/nea/bhnrc/fsrg.
Disclosure: All suggestions you see here are my own personal and professional opinion. None of the products or sources have asked, paid or otherwise compensated me to be included here.