July 05, 2011

Snacking: what to do with the fourth meal of the day?

Snacking now constitutes 25% of calories consumed in the US, according to a study that was presented at the Institute of Food Technology meeting last month. This is about 580 calories per day, about the same size as a meal, according to professor Richard Mattes of Purdue University.

Why? There are more situations in which we are confronted with tempting food. Our internal hunger and satiety signals are weak, particularly when looking at large assortments of delicious treats. Refusing would require quite some self-control. What does not help, is that self-control is like a muscle in your arm, according to the well-known psychologist Roy Baumeister and his 'self-control-as-a-muscle-theory'. When used too intensively, it gets tired and is more likely to fail. Baumeister came up with the term 'ego depletion' to indicate that self-control is a limited resource. So the more you try to not give in to temptations the more likely you are to go for the 'forbidden' food in the end. Coupled with increased snack portion sizes available, it is not surprising that people get overweight. I guess there are two basic solutions: don't snack or snack smarter.

1)      Just do not snack 
When I was at Cornell last year, Jan Chozen Bays gave a very inspirational workshop about mindful eating. Mindful eating is paying full attention to eating without negative judgments. It is about being aware of physical and emotional sensations when eating. What struck me most during this workshop is that she said that we could learn to accept an empty stomach. It does not need to be filled immediately. Like Buddha, listening to the ebb and flow of hunger and desire, she explained. We are not used to that anymore, conditioned that we should not accept that nagging hungry feeling in our stomach. This reminded me of an old Dutch commercial with the slogan: 'Four o'clock: cup-a-soup, more people should do that'. Mindful eaters, however, do not look at the clock to decide what and when to eat, but listen closely to what their body is saying. Unfortunately, I still not that far in mastering the art of mindful eating...

Accept the 'four o'clock' feeling without snacking? (Still Cup a Soup commercial 1990s)

2)      Smart snacking: cut up your food 
You could switch to healthier foods, such as fruits. Another solution and probably more realistic for many of us is to cut up your food into smaller portions (maybe an interesting nudge?). David Marchiori and colleagues (see Journal of the American Dietetic Association) gave a group of study participants unlimited consumption from a bowl of candies. About half of the participants received candies that were cut in two pieces and the other half got the normal sized candies. Participants with the tiny candies ate about half compared to the other group. Although this was only a 60 calories difference, it showed that consumers typically view their consumption in numbers ('oh, I already had 5 candies) rather than quantities ('e.g. a handful). 

A related idea is to package your snacks in small-sized portions. A recent study of the Food and Brand lab gave one group of participants one large 400-calorie package of crackers and another group four smaller 100-calorie packs of the same crackers to eat during a television show. Results show that only overweight participants consumed more than double the number of calories when eating from the bigger package (384 calories versus 176 calories). Interestingly, all participants underestimated the number of crackers eaten. So, it is not the tracking of calories that is easier with a smaller package. Apparently, overweight people are more likely to rely on external cues (such as the need to open a new package) to stop eating, according to Wansink and colleagues.


  1. These are great ideas. They're not just for adults though. Parents should consider them when they feed their kids. Presentation, packaging, portion size...all make such a difference.

    Glad you found my site, so now I've found yours.


  2. A nice article with a great stuff of information, I really like that. This is really interesting site that gives huge of information to all readers thanks a lot.


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