Meals, Snacks, and Indulgences: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, we never stop eating.  Our meal patterns are made up of some combination of meals and snacks but oftentimes the lines between them blur.

In a classic study, people were asked to take a picture of what they ate or drank throughout the day.  Since each picture is time stamped the researchers were able to graph when the research participants ate or drank and how much (figure 1).  As you can see, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between mealtime and snack time.

Figure 1. Dot Plot of Eating Occasions in 11 Individuals Over the Course of One Day.  Each vertical dot column represents the eating patterns of one individual.  Individuals were asked to take a picture of their food or drink each time they ate or drank something.  Since pictures are time stamped the researchers were able to create a dot plot of the amount of food they consumed and the time they consumed it.  The gray shaded background region of the figure represents it being dark outside (study performed in San Diego in the wintertime).  People never stop eating from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed (Gill & Panda; 2015, Cell Metab).

What is Considered a Meal or a Snack?

Traditionally, most people try to eat 3 square meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Anything eaten outside of or between these meals is usually considered a snack.  But if we are constantly eating throughout the day, what constitutes a meal and what constitutes a snack? 

  • Is it the amount of food eaten?
  • The number of calories consumed?
  • The time of day?
  • The type of food eaten?
  • The reason for eating (i.e., for hunger, pleasure, or boredom?)
  • Something to get you to your next eating occasion?

More food and calories are typically eaten at meals during somewhat standardized times (ex. 7am, 12pm, 6pm corresponding to breakfast, lunch, and dinner).  Most people also have an idea of what type of food constitutes a meal or a snack but there is no standardized definition.  Is a roll of Ritz crackers and cheese spread a meal?  Most people would answer no, but the calories in the cheese and crackers is more than that of a small cheeseburger and fries at McDonalds.

A New Way of Looking at Meals and Snacks

I propose that we develop a new language to differentiate between meals, snacks, and what I call indulgences.  In my opinion, meals are the food you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at fairly standardized times.  Snacks are food you eat between meals that contain 150 calories or less per sitting.  Indulgences are foods that contain more than 150 calories per sitting (table 1).  And I consider deserts to be an extension of a meal.

Table 1. Meals, Snacks, and Indulgences.  Meals typically contain between 300 and 500 calories, are much larger, and should contain more calories than snacks or indulgences.  Snacks should contain <150 calories per sitting whereas indulgences contain >150 calories per sitting.  I have also included the recommended number of servings for meals, snacks, and indulgences based upon what phase of dieting or weight maintenance you are in.  *The total number of calories and servings per/day in the weight maintenance phase are dependent on body size, goals, and physical activity.

Notice I say “sitting” and not “serving”.  In dietitian speak, we like to talk about calories per serving, but no one pays attention to servings.  People have eating occasions or “sittings”.  It’s almost cliché to say but so many of our food items have more than one serving per bag/container.  And what do you and I usually do?  Eat the whole bag! 

Snacks can further be broken down into

  1. No or Low-Calorie Snacks
  2. Snacks

Table 2. Low or No Calorie Snacks for Phase I Weight Loss. The grayed out snacks are recommended for Phase II dieting and Weight Maintenance.

Table 3. Healthy Snacks to Keep on Hand. These snacks are recommended for Phase II Dieting and Weight Maintenance.  Most, but not all of these snacks are < 150 calories/sitting.

Everything Else is an Indulgence!

Now, of course it is more than possible to eat an orange and two string cheeses for a snack (~220 calories) thereby violating the 150 calorie “snack” threshold but that’s a little beside the point.  You’re still eating fewer calories than if you were eating a snack that should be considered an indulgence.

There are also gray areas when it comes to small portions and healthy energy dense foods such as nuts.  A can of Coca Cola contains 150 calories.  By definition a can of Coke is therefore a snack and not an indulgence.  I don’t like to get into “nutritional quality” when it comes to losing weight – your focus should be on calories, calories, and calories, not nutritional quality.  But we need to use some common sense here.  Coke is an indulgence, not a snack.  The same can also be said of prepackaged cookies or potato chips that are sold in 100 calorie packets.  They are indulgences.

Another nuance to the snacks versus indulgence discussion is what about nuts?  Nuts (i.e., almonds, cashews, pistachios) are an all-natural, healthy, unprocessed food.  Surely, they should be classified as a snack.  This one is tough.  I would technically classify nuts as an indulgence (unless stringently portion controlled). 

Many people will disagree with me but when you’re trying to lose weight, you need to be able to focus solely on calories.  Eating for health will only be a distraction and an excuse.  There are simply too many factors that go into eating “healthy” for you to manage while trying to cut calories at the same time.  Once you have lost the weight, then it is time to incorporate “healthy” eating into your meal planning (I will write a more extensive explanation of this in a separate blog post soon).

For many people “snacking” is an excuse to eat junk food when you’re not even hungry.  We need to stop calling everything we eat in the time between meals a snack.  Soda, chips, cookies, crackers, and candy bars are not snacks.  They are indulgences and indulgences need to be properly managed and controlled if you want to have any chance of losing weight and keeping it off.  But don’t worry, you don’t have to eliminate indulgences forever, just when you are trying to lose weight.  After that, you can re-incorporate some of them, depending on your ability to keep them in check.

How to Deal with Snacks:

Every opportunity to eat is an opportunity to overeat.  This includes meals too.  But when it comes to snacking there are two primary ways to deal with it.

  1. Go Cold Turkey and/or Try some Type of Intermittent Fasting: give up eating between meals altogether or only snack on your higher calorie days. Now it doesn’t matter whether you consider something a meal, a snack, or an indulgence.
  1. Eat Snacks, Not Indulgences Between Meals: know the difference between a snack and an indulgence. Eat snacks (within reason) and limit your indulgences.

Once you can limit yourself to actual snacks (i.e., apples, bananas, Greek yogurt, cheese sticks) and reduce or eliminate indulgences (i.e., soda, chips, cookies, crackers, candy bars) you will be well on your way to hitting your calorie goals.  If you’re hungry you don’t have to give up snacking altogether but try not to waste your calories on indulgences.  We need to stop calling everything we eat between meals a snack.  Most snacks are not snacks, they are indulgences.

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