We are a nation that loves to snack. We are also a nation with a weight problem. Not surprisingly, the two are connected.
Researchers have found that people who considered a particular food to be a “snack” ate significantly more calories when tested later than subjects who considered the very same foods to be a “meal.”
And according to a study, how you classify food and food-related behaviors could play a role in unwitting weight gain.
How We Relate to Food
Regardless of the food itself, when and how you eat a food could cause you to define it a certain way.
For example, you may draw a conclusion based on the time of day you eat (first thing in the morning versus 3 in the afternoon) or if you eat the food for a special occasion, such as a holiday or birthday.
Similarly, how you eat a food can play a role in how you define it. Foods eaten sitting down, with family or friends, and/or with the use of utensils are most often considered “meals.” Conversely, foods eaten standing up, eaten with your hand, and/or eaten alone are often thought of as “snacks.”
While this is interesting, it gains practical importance when you consider the implications. If the food doesn’t matter as much as the when and how, then it could mean that you are unwittingly consuming many more calories than you realize.
In other words, if you have a slice or two of leftover pizza standing up in the kitchen at 4 in the afternoon, is that a snack or an early dinner? If it is a snack, then a few hours later, you are likely to eat another full meal for dinner. That can mean extra calories… and extra pounds.
But pizza is only one example. Turns out, there are many foods that have fuzzy borders when it comes to the question of snack or meal.
Is It a Snack or a Meal?
To further understand this concept of snack versus meal, researchers worked with more than 500 college students. They were asked to classify 85 foods as either snacks or meals. The foods were broken down into five different categories:
- Breads, cereals, rice and pasta (35 foods)
- Meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts (19 foods)
- Milk, cheese and yogurt (10 foods)
- Fruits and vegetables (6 foods)
- Fats, oils and sweets (14 foods)
The students were given basic definitions of foods, such as macaroni and cheese, pizza, cereal, etc. If 50 percent or more of the participants considered a food to be a meal or a snack, it was put in that category.
Interestingly, more than 52 percent of all the foods on the survey list were seen as snacks. Of these, 50 percent were sweet foods and 39 percent were either salty or savory foods. What really stood out was the fact that foods that fell into the bread group were most often categorized as both snacks and meals.
Researchers hypothesized that this could be due to the fact that many of these foods can be eaten as a true snack, as well as a side dish with a meal. Researchers also suggested that these foods might be classified into one of the two categories based on the time of day they are eaten.
Researchers concluded, “Categorizing a food as a snack or a meal affects our food consumption, and thinking differently about a food may influence how much we eat and how hungry or satiated we feel. Since snack have a smaller satiety ration and greater energy density, cutting down on these extra foods between meals will help to reduce daily energy intake, added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and sodium from our diet.”
This study is a great example of how our perception affects our choices. What foods do you routinely eat either standing up, in the car, by hand versus with utensils, and “on the go”?
Now think about how you feel about that food. Do you consider it a meal or dismiss it as merely a snack? How often do you snack, and is the food truly a snack food?
By understanding our relationship to food as well as our food choices, we will be better able to keep our health and our waistlines in a healthy range.
 Capaldi, ED et al. Isocaloric meal and snack foods differentially affect eating behavior. Appetite. 2006 Mar;46(2):117-23.
 Wadhera D and Capaldi ED. Categorization of foods as “snack” and “meal” by college students. Appetite. 2012 Feb 14;58(3):882-8.