Even if you’re not a meal skipper, it’s helpful to think of snacks as tiny meals, not treats — at least most of the time. Go for balance.

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On Nutrition

Snacking — or not  — is not a one-size-fits-all habit. Sometimes, when I ask someone if they snack between meals, I get an immediate, “No! I’ve never snacked!” Other times, I hear a lot of “I’m so hungry when I get home from work that I want to eat whatever’s not nailed down … maybe I need to start having an afternoon snack.” It’s wise to trust those instincts!

Among those who do snack — and that’s most Americans — nutritional quality is all over the map. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear Chris Taylor, PhD, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor of medical dietetics and family medicine at Ohio State University, discuss data on the country’s snacking habits gathered from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

So what is the “state of snacking” in America? Overall, NHANES data shows that we’re skipping meals — especially lunch — but we’re not skipping snacks. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans snack, and we are more consistent about our snacking than we are about our meals. That’s important, because we get about a meal’s worth of calories from our snacks, and that “meal” isn’t very nutritious, on average.

Specifically, we get about one-quarter of our daily calories and carbohydrates from our snacks, but we get one-third of our daily added sugar. Snacks tend to be low in protein, especially as we get older, and fiber, which in the average American is pretty abysmal to start with. The nutritional situation is worse among breakfast skippers — snacks tend to be even higher in calories and added sugar than among those who do start the day with a meal.

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Now, back to lunch skipping. I frequently hear comments like this: “I’m really bad about skipping lunch, so when I get hungry I go get a snack from the vending machine, or just grab whatever’s around.” Trouble is, even so-called “healthy” vending machine options are usually less nutritious — and always more expensive — than what you can bring from home. For those who work at companies that offer free food, “free” comes with hidden health costs if the food skews toward salt, sugar and fat. Even if you are subsisting on more-nutritious energy bars instead of less-nutritious doughnuts, you’re going to miss out on the nutritional variety you get from “real” food.

If you find it challenging to eat lunch consistently at work or school — or when out running errands midday — pack enough nutritious snacks to make a meal. Packing an assortment of nuts, fruit, raw veggies, hummus, whole-grain crackers and individually wrapped portions of cheese may feel easier than packing a “real lunch,” especially if you have the right small containers and snack-size resealable baggies for the job.

Even if you’re not a meal skipper, it’s helpful to think of snacks as tiny meals, not treats — at least most of the time. Go for balance. Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds or pistachios, are a perfect portable, relatively nonperishable snack, containing protein, healthy fats and fiber. However, they are calorie-dense (containing a lot of calories in a small volume), so stick to a quarter-cup or less and pair them with a piece of fruit if you need more volume.

What if you’re not a snacker? Should you be snacking? Let your hunger be your guide. If you find yourself getting hangry between meals, or you tend to be ravenous when you sit down for a meal, then yes, plan for nutritious snacks.