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Are snacks good for you?
There's good research about snacking and it seems most of us are one of two types. We are either sweet snackers or salty snackers. Knowing which you are can help you manage your weight by making sure you have snacks on hand that will be satisfying. 

Snack right!
A lot of health issues come from snacking and this is because many snack foods are very calorie dense (high calories for small portions). A sweet snack like a Kit Kat bar has 220 calories and 11 grams of fat, whereas only 6 Triscuits are 120 calories and 5 grams of fat. Most such snack foods have little nutritive value.

Best Snack? Nuts!
When I'm giving a lecture about eating healthy, someone invariably asks about snacking. As you may already know, I'm not a big fan of snacking between meals when you're trying to lose weight. All too often that snacking simply adds calories that you don't need. Still, people really want to know what is the best snacking option.


 

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Is It a Meal, or Is It a Snack?



I get questions about snacking all the time: "What should I have for snacks?" or "Is this a healthy snack?" While I've written essays about what to snack on, people do seem to have trouble with their snacking. What is the difference between a meal and a snack?

While it's easy to know which is which when you're following a structured plan like The Dr. Gourmet Diet Plan, most people don't consciously plan their meals. When you buy a 400-calorie package of cookies from the vending machine or eat a plate of finger foods at a company cocktail party, do you consider those "snacks" or "meals"? You might eat more later if you've mentally tagged that food a "snack."

Dr. Brian Wansink and his team at Cornell University recruited for their study over 120 students and staff at Cornell who ranged in age from 19 to 58 (Appetite 2010;54(1):214-216). They were given a survey of 22 questions asking the individual to rate on a scale of 1 to 9 whether a described situation would be classified more as a "snack" (1) or a "meal" (9). The questions described environmental cues such as eating alone versus eating with family and food cues such as prepared or packaged foods.

They found that eating situations were more likely to be considered "meals" if:

  • They sat down (rather than eating while standing);
  • They ate with family (instead of alone);
  • It took 30 minutes to eat (rather than 10 minutes);
  • The food was eaten from a ceramic plate (as opposed to a plastic or paper plate);
  • They used cloth napkins (instead of paper napkins);
  • The foods were "high quality" or "healthy" or prepared from scratch (as opposed to "low quality," "unhealthy" or prepackaged).

Overall, the stereotype of a "meal" was high quality, prepared food that was eaten with family, while seated, from ceramic plates with cloth napkins. "Snacks," on the other hand, were prepackaged, unhealthy, cheap foods eaten alone, usually while standing, using paper or plastic plates (if any were used at all).

What this means for you

While Dr. Wansink and his team did not explore the participants' definitions of "high quality," or "healthy," this suggests ways to help your mind tell your body that you've had a meal: sit down, take your time, put your Lean Cuisine on a plate, and eat something you know is healthy. If you've had a 300-calorie food that you've mentally tagged as a "meal," you're less likely to feel that you've had "just a snack" and allow yourself to eat more later.

First posted: February 17, 2010