You might've said goodbye to your official afternoon snack when you finished elementary school. But having a set time to nosh in between meals might be just the thing you need to keep your weight in check or reach your weight-loss goal.
Why? Lots of us have traded three square meals a day and a snack or two for a pattern of nonstop nibbling. Problem is, that can make it harder to keep track of how much you're actually eating or eat with a sense of mindfulness — two keys for avoiding taking in more food than you need.
The solution doesn't have to be steering clear of snacking altogether though. Instead, try taking a cue from one of the (many!) cultures that have snack breaks built into the day. Here's how to make snack time work for you.
What’s So Bad About Grazing, Really?
A granola bar on your way to a mid-morning meeting. A cookie (or two) shortly after lunch. A handful or crackers and a wedge of cheese when you walk in the door before getting dinner ready. A few little noshes throughout the day day might not seem like a big deal individually. But they can add up over the course of weeks, months and years — affecting both your weight and your relationship with food.
For starters, the nibble-all-day approach can make it tough to know how much you're actually eating — which can easily lead to taking in more calories than you need.
"We're notoriously bad at remembering how much and what we eat," says mindful eating expert and Hanger Management author Susan Albers, PsyD. "And it makes sense. We're juggling so much in our minds that we easily forget the snack we had here or there."
Take the example of nibbling at work, where it's shockingly easy to grab a bite of (often free) food here and another bite there without actually paying attention to what you're eating.
On-the-job snacking added an extra 1,300 calories to workers' diets each week, per a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was presented at the June 2018 American Society for Nutrition annual meeting.
In short, the more times a day you eat, the more easy it becomes to potentially overeat. That can affect your weight — and your body's ability to maintain stable blood sugar. In fact, eating more often was tied to greater body fat accumulation and worse glucose handling, per a May 2014 study in the journal Hepatology.
That was true even when calorie intake remained the same.
"If you're constantly eating, you may constantly be releasing small amounts of insulin to get the energy from your food into your cells," explains nutrition expert Kelly Jones, RD, CSSD. "This means soon after you've eaten, your blood sugar will drop and your body will be craving food again."
The average American typically eats more snacks than actual meals each day.
But the effects aren't just physiological. Eating little bits round the clock puts you in a perpetual state of never-quite-hungry, never-quite-full. "It makes it difficult to feel physically or mentally satisfied, which can lead to more grazing, or overeating if you do sit down to a full meal," Jones says.
Grazing can make it harder to listen to your body, figure out what you really need and be OK with those needs — whether it's whole grain crackers with hummus or a brownie.
When researcher studied the snacking habits of 261 healthy adults, they found that grazers were significantly less likely to eat mindfully and express feelings of self-compassion, per a 2018 article in Health Psychology Open.
How Other Countries Snack
"Snack time" in the U.S. is something we mostly think of as being for kids. But in other parts of the world, dedicating a specific time of day to rest and refuel isn't just for the playground set.
Plenty of cultures set aside time for a snack break for adults:
- Sweden: It's typical for Swedish adults to take a fika — a coffee or tea break with a baked good — during mid-morning, mid-afternoon or both.
- Poland: Many people have a small second breakfast, called drugie śniadanie, halfway through the morning.
- Japan: Sanji no oyatsu, literally translating to 3 o'clock snack, is an opportunity to relax and take a nibble that'll keep you satisfied until dinner.
- Colombia: At around 5 p.m., Colombians often enjoy la once, a snack of hot chocolate, coffee or tea with bread, crackers or an arepa.
All of these snacks happen at different times and consist of different foods. But they have something important in common: They're deliberate events where food — and a brief chance to relax — are the focus. Eating happens during this planned time, then it stops and it doesn't happen again until the next planned time (usually, a meal).
From a health and weight perspective, the data suggests that a set snack time might be preferable to grazing.
Compare this to the U.S., where the most common snack time is whenever-I-feel-like-it, and between-meal bites are typically seen as something to scarf down on the go.
The average American typically eats more snacks than actual meals each day, and 86 percent say they've replaced a legit meal with snacks, per an October 2018 survey conducted by OnePoll and the snack brand FarmRich.
From a cultural perspective, no one way of snacking is objectively better than another. But from a health and weight perspective, the data suggests that a set snack time might be preferable to grazing: Nearly 40 percent of American adults have obesity, according to the CDC. That percentage is higher than almost any other country as of 2017, per the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization. The countries mentioned above, on the whole, are a lot leaner.
- The average obesity rate in Sweden is about 20 percent, per an April 2015 study in the European Journal of Public Health.
- In Colombia, the average obesity rate is 20.7 percent, per a 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) report.
- In Poland, 17 percent of adults have obesity, according to a 2017 OECD report.
- Japan's obesity rate is less than 4 percent, per the OECD.
Do these numbers all come down to snacking? Obesity is a complex issue, so probably not. But it does seem fair to say that if you feel like you're eating way too much and want a concrete solution for curbing your calorie intake, trading grazing for one or two set snack times is something to consider.
4 Ways to Make Snack Time Work for You
With no American cultural norms in place for snacking, picking a time to refuel between meals — and deciding on what to eat — comes down to what works best for you. The key is making a plan and sticking to it, while still allowing for enough flexibility to honor your hunger levels and cravings, which might not be exactly the same every single day. How to get started:
1. Pick a Time or a Time Window
Your ideal snack time depends on your daily routine, so think about the time of day when you're most likely to get hungry between meals and could use a break. It's OK if picking a precise time feels unrealistic.
"If you're used to grazing, it can be helpful to have a time range for meals or snacks," Jones says. Notice that you tend to nibble the most during the late afternoon into dinnertime? Try to plan for a snack between 3 and 4 p.m., for instance.
2. Do a Quick Check-in to Decide What to Eat
"Don't just eat what's handy and convenient," Albers says. "Actively and intentionally choose something that's tasty and reduces hunger."
If you're working toward a weight goal, Jones recommends combining at least two foods that will help fill you up and keep you satisfied until your next meal. Think: a complex carb plus a protein like whole grain crackers and hummus, or a protein and a healthy fat like Greek yogurt with chopped nuts.
Resist the urge to feel like you have to make the Healthiest Choice Possible every single time, though. Remember, cultural snack times are just as much about relaxing and enjoying yourself as physically refueling.
"When a snack really nails what you're needing, you walk away feeling refreshed and content," Albers says. "So, know what you're seeking. Is it a healthy snack? A treat? Something energizing?"
3. Make Your Snack the Main Event
You'll enjoy your snack more — and feel more satisfied afterwards — if you pause whatever you're doing to just eat. That means no scrolling on your phone, no answering emails and no eating on the run or in the car. "Sit down, slowly chew and savor each bite," Albers says.
Just don't have time for that? You're not alone — but you can still make your snacking intentional. "If you'll be eating in the car or while you're working, at least be mindful about what it is you're choosing to eat," Jones says.
4. Get Rid of the Guilt
Sometimes a snack is mostly just about picking a relatively healthy option that'll keep you energized until your next meal. But sometimes it's about satisfying a craving for something specific, and that's completely OK.
"Enjoy what you're craving and eat enough to feel satisfied so you can move on to enjoy your next balanced eating experience once you're hungry again," Jones says. "Food rules and ignoring cravings can actually lead to overeating."
- American Society for Nutrition: "Large Study Finds Workplace Foods Contribute to Unhealthy Eating"
- Hepatology: "Hypercaloric diets with increased meal frequency, but not meal size, increase intrahepatic triglycerides: a randomized controlled trial"
- One Poll: "New Research Shows Snacks Becoming a 'Meal of Choice'"
- CDC: "Obesity and Overweight"
- OECD: "Obesity Update 2017"
- European Journal of Public Health: "Obesity continues to increase in the majority of the population in mid-Sweden—a 12-year follow-up "
- WHO: "Colombia"
- OECD: "State of Health in the EU Poland"