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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Snack Smart
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Gerald F. Combs, Jr.

We are becoming a nation of grazers-one in five American meals is a snack.  Snacks provide more than a quarter of the daily calories consumed by American children-that's a third more than 30 years ago. 

Of course, we are surrounded with an unprecedented array of tasty, convenient and inexpensive sweet, salty and savory snack choices.

Studies have associated the national increase in obesity with the decline in the traditional three daily meals and the increase in snacking.  It has been suggested that snacking may contribute to the association between obesity and TV watching among teens-two-thirds of teens watch TV while munching on mostly salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Snacking can contribute to overweight and obesity in two ways.  First, snacks in modest amounts may not be as filling as we think-if they don't dampen hunger, snacks can simply add to daily caloric intake.  Second, social and environmental cues make it very difficult to judge how much we eat when snacking.  For example, studies by Dr. Brian Wansink at Cornell University have shown that people take more chips from a large serving bowl than they will when the same amount is presented in two smaller bowls.  Men tend to eat more popcorn at the movies when they are on a date than when they are there with their buddies (women show the opposite response).  We are likely to eat more candies from a clear container than from an opaque one.

What about smart snacking without increasing daily caloric intake?  Studies in experimental animals have shown that distributing calories among several feeding times produces less body fat than consuming the same number of calories in fewer meals. 

This may be why national studies show that adult snackers tend to be at lower risk to obesity-they appear to balance their daily caloric consumption between their snacks and meals.  This can be a smart strategy for older people, who frequently have diets of poorer nutritional quality.  Studies have shown that they can obtain significant amounts of vitamins A, E and C and beta-carotene from snacks.

So, be smart about your snacking. The rules are simple:

  • Be aware of how much you eat when you snack - read Nutrition Labels; put your serving in a bowl instead of eating from the bag; limit your snack to 100 calories (a medium apple, a medium banana, 1 ½ oranges, 2 cups of carrots, a small handful of nuts, 3 cups of low-fat microwave popcorn, 2 domino-size pieces of low-fat cheese); select 100-calorie packs.
  • Select filling, low-calorie, nutritious snacks - fruits and vegetables are the best bets; they give the feeling of fullness while providing vitamins and other nutrients, only a few calories and no fat.

You can get quick access to the calories in snacks and other foods at www.myfoodapedia.gov, and to ways to balance your daily calories, to eat healthy on a budget, and to develop a personal food plan at www.ChooseMyPlate.gov.


Last Modified: 1/6/2012
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