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"Meal" vs. "snack": the name matters



a clear glass bowl full of M&M-like candies

Conventional wisdom says that if you're working on your weight, you should avoid mindless eating: consume your meals sitting down at the table, not while watching tv or with other distractions. Snacking, however, is almost by definition something you do while distracted in some way: you almost certainly don't snack by taking the time to get out the silverware and place the snack on a plate.

Lately I've seen the lines blurring between "snacks" and "meals." Amy's, for example, markets their 270-calorie pocket sandwiches under "snacks" on their website alongside candy bars, salsa, and finger foods such as their Burrito Bean & Cheese Snacks, which are 200 calories per serving - with two servings in a package. If you read our Friday Dr. Gourmet's Food Reviews Newsletter, you know that I think the likelihood of someone eating just half the box of any frozen food is slim at best - and 400 calories is a meal, not a snack, whether it's finger food or not.

Practically speaking, though, does it matter whether you call it a "snack" or a "meal" if either way you're eating the same number of calories? What about how you eat it sitting down at the table (a meal) opposed to eating on the run (a snack)?

Researchers in the United Kingdom designed a study to explore the interaction between calling something a "meal" or a "snack" and whether that food was consumed as a "snack" (standing up, eating from a plastic dish with plastic utensils) or as a "meal" (sitting down at a table using a china plate and metal utensils) (Appetite 2018;120:666-672).

Eighty men and women of clinically normal weight participated in their feeding study. Each participant visited the lab and were served a preload amount of food (more on that below) then participated in a taste test of four different snack foods: two sweet (M&M's and chocolate animal cookies) and two savory (potato chips and cheese crackers).

That preload amount of food was a specific serving of a pasta dish which contained about 500 calories. It was presented to each participant in one of four different ways, assigned randomly:

  • The lab assistant called the food a "snack" and gave it to the participant in a clear plastic tub with a plastic fork: the participant ate while standing;
  • The lab assistant called the food a "meal" and gave it to the participant on a china plate, with metal utensils, served while the participant was seated at a table;
  • The lab assistant called the food a "snack," but presented it on a china plate at the table; or
  • The lab assistant called the food a "meal," but presented it in a clear plastic tub and the participant ate while standing.

The question, of course, was how much of the "taste test" foods the participants ate after being presented with the same initial amount of food under each of the four conditions. Which mattered most: what it was called ("snack" versus "meal") or how it was presented (like a snack - eating standing up with plastic, or like a meal - eating sitting down)?

Even though the participants were served about the same volume of food and the same number of calories, those whose preload meal was called a "snack" and presented as a "snack" ate the most of the taste test foods - about 50% more in volume and total calories (and twice as many M&M's) than all other conditions. The participants were asked to rate their feelings of hunger and desire to eat both before and after the preload food, and regardless of how the food was labeled and presented, the participants felt about the same - yet they still ate more of the "taste test" foods when the preload was labeled and presented as a snack.

What this means for you

Be mindful of what you're calling a "snack" as opposed to a "meal." If you're watching your weight, remember that all food has calories, even if you eat them standing up over the sink directly from the plastic tub (and no, broken potato chips have not lost all their calories because they're broken, either). It's easy to fool yourself into eating more than you really should.

First posted: November 22, 2017