I’ve noticed it for some time, in a vaguely-paying-attention sort of way. But it wasn’t until seeing a news article in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis this weekend that it really hit home: For better or worse, snacking has become a mainstream American way of eating.
From the article:
Two studies from 2010 by University of North Carolina researchers looked at snacking trends between 1977 and 2006 and found that children now eat three snacks a day and adults snack twice a day. That is one additional snack for each group compared with 30 years ago.
Three square meals don’t exist anymore, said Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Packaged Facts, a publishing company that focuses on consumer product research. “Meals and snacks have become all blurred together.” The authors of the report concluded that “our children are moving toward constantly eating.”
What is up with all the nibbling between meals? More to the point, how did we get this way?
Finkel attributes it to the American on-the-run lifestyle which has led to the decline of structured mealtimes. Instead of sitting down to dinner together, dinner has become what you eat in the car on the way to work or soccer practice, he said.
Once you start noticing, the signs are everywhere that snacking is an eating behavior that’s widely accepted and even expected. Manufacturers have developed hundreds of “snack-sized” products meant to be eaten at your desk or on the run. Restaurants are open late into the night or, increasingly, 24 hours a day. Few kids’ events are complete anymore without a snack of some kind. Even diet plans now include recommendations for morning and afternoon snacks, on the assumption that this is part of people’s daily routine.
In an indication of how entrenched the snack habit has become, a study that appeared in Health Affairs in 2010 found that nearly one-third of the daily calories consumed by American children now come from snacks.
It all raises the question: Is this a trend we should be welcoming?
There in fact seems to be no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a snack. Are snacks a replacement for a full meal or are they something that’s consumed in addition to a meal? How many calories can a snack contain before it stops being a snack and becomes a meal?
There’s some limited evidence that “grazing,” or consuming half a dozen small meals a day, may be more effective for losing weight, curbing hunger and controlling blood sugar levels than the traditional three squares a day. But the research findings so far have been somewhat contradictory. At least two studies have found that for those who want to lose weight, what ultimately matters is how many calories they consume, not how often they eat. According to other studies, however, grazing can be beneficial, especially in helping people feel more sated throughout the day and less likely to overeat.
Grazing might also benefit some groups more than others. Athletes and active children often need snacks to replenish the calories they burn. Some studies involving older adults, an age group at risk of malnutrition, have found that large meals can be unappetizing for them and that they fare better on smaller meals throughout the day.
What it seems to come down to is the quality and amount of snacking that takes place. There’s a difference, after all, between snacking on carrot sticks vs. a bag of chips. And there’s a difference between snacks that are part of an overall healthy eating plan vs. snacks that add to one’s daily calorie load. Munching on something a few extra times a day might not seem like much but the calories can add up in ways that might astonish many people.
Left unanswered in all of this are the social implications of replacing structured mealtimes with grazing and snacks eaten on the run. Are we losing something when we don’t sit down at the table together, or doesn’t this really matter? What happens when the whole world becomes our dining room?
I’m not sure we’ve pondered these questions, and in any case it’s too late. This particular train has already left the station. The challenge, it seems, is how to manage this cultural shift in eating in ways that are healthful rather than toxic.