Snacking is a fact of life for most of us. Research shows that, in America, about 25 percent of our daily calories come from snacks.
Despite their ubiquity, snacks have developed a bit of a bad rap. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) warn against eating too many snack foods and call out snacks as a significant source of calories. But the DGAs also include an important caveat: Not all snacks are created equal.
Before we dive into whether or not snacks are beneficial for our health, let’s define the word. The definition of a “snack” is a little complicated. Technically, a snack is any portion of food that is consumed between the traditional three meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We often think of snacks as smaller in portion size than a meal. But as eating patterns have evolved over time, the line between what and when something is a snack or a meal has blurred. Some people may replace a meal with a smaller “snack-sized” portion of food, while others eat more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day. For our purposes, we’ll define snacks as a smaller portion of food.
Now that we know what we’re working with, let’s address one common question: Are snacks bad for our health?
Some research has suggested that calories Americans get from snacks have increased, but without a corresponding increase in important nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins or minerals. This is also referred to as an increase in the “energy density” of snacks. But that doesn’t mean that all snacking leads to negative health consequences. Quite the contrary. Here are three things to keep in mind about snacking.
1. Snack with a Purpose
You can snack with purpose and pick snacks that are more nutrient-dense. This means choosing snacks that help you meet your daily nutrient needs.
Focus on incorporating more of the food groups that many of us don’t eat enough of (e.g. fruits/veggies, dairy, whole grains, and alternative sources of protein like legumes and nuts/seeds). Check out the MyPlate graphic to see how your snack sizes up.
For a more satisfying snack, strive toward those with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber and protein. Think powerhouse combinations like vegetables and hummus, fruit, nuts and yogurt, or whole-grain crackers and peanut butter.
2. Indulge…and Move On
Sure, not every snack will be nutrient-packed. Some are undeniably more indulgent than others. A good rule of thumb when it comes to snacking is to first consider which foods and flavors you really want at that time, then keep in mind what nutrients they may offer.
There are times when eating one indulgent snack may satisfy faster than eating a few snacks that are considered to be “healthy.” In this case, trying to make the “right” choice may lead to you eat more while feeling less satisfied. Sometimes the small, indulgent food provides the biggest satisfaction.
3. More Than the Sum of Its Parts
To say that all snacks are bad for our health is to misunderstand the meaning and purpose of a snack. Snacking is a great way to abate hunger between meals or to bond during a break with co-workers. Eating is not a pass or fail experience—it is very nuanced and unique to the individual.
Figure out how snacks fit into your overall eating plan based on your preferences, schedule and available food choices. Snacks (and food in general) should provide a mix of nutrition, satisfaction and, yes, even a little fun.