What are we even talking about when we talk about snacking? Is snacking suspect #1 driving illness and obesity as some have suggested (notorious sugar hating Dr. Lustig among them). Or is snacking the health saving answer to many of your eating conundrums as many dietitians recommend?
As with many things, the devil is in the details. It all comes down to when you’re snacking, why you’re snacking, and what you’re snacking on. But before we get into that, we have to define what we even mean when we talk about snacking.
Snacking vs. Grazing
For an eating specialist, a small amount of food eaten between meals is defined as a “snack,” The point of this intake is to provide energy between times of larger intake defined as “meals.” To add to the confusion, sometimes a large snack is referred to as a “mini-meal.”
Critics however often use the term “snack” when they really mean “grazing.” Grazing is a form of eating characterized by mindlessness – that is grabbing small tastes of whatever is within sight. Classic instances of grazing include candy from a decorative bowl or bites leftover on a kids plate.
Grazing is distinct from snacking in three ways. In both cases a small amount is eaten between meals. But the eating in grazing is spontaneous rather than pre-planned and it’s primarily done mindlessly. Therefore, most grazing is not undertaken in response to physical hunger. A final distinction is that grazing typically refers to multiple very small amounts eaten throughout the day – a few candies here and a nibble there – whereas a snack generally refers to an amount of food eaten at once that while smaller than a meal is still substantial enough to be registered as intake by the stomach.
Because “grazers” aren’t eating in response to hunger or fullness they often end the day feeling (and sometimes believing) that they didn’t eat much. This isn’t meant to demonize grazing. Grazing can be a strategy that works for you or against you depending on your goals and the circumstance. It’s entirely possible that you don’t realize your physical hunger until you see a food option and then make a well-reasoned decision to have a few bites. Or that you have an emotional urge that can easily be satisfied with a taste.
Spontaneous vs. Pre-planned
To add to the confusion, snacks can also be spontaneous. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spontaneously deciding to have a snack, especially when driven by hunger or a change in circumstances (dinner being delayed for instance).
However, it’s pre-planned snacks that are the star of the show. The reason for this is that the more you acknowledge your physical and emotional needs around food, the greater the chance of your making choices that best support your goals. When you pre-plan the bulk of your eating, including snacks and mini-meals, you have the best opportunity to ensure that the available choices will be a good match for your physical and emotional needs.