Snack Attack! Americans Are Eating More Between Meals

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Americans love to snack. We do at the movie theater, at our desks at work, in front of the TV, in the car, even on the subway. There’s hardly a time during the day when we aren’t putting food in our faces.

The habit of eating between meals has increased over the last 30 years, a new study published in PLoS Medicine finds. Snacks have basically become the fourth meal of the day — accounting for 580 extra calories per day, most of which come from beverages — and may be a primary contributor to our expanding waistlines, the study finds.

Analyzing data from four nutritional surveys conducted between 1977 and 2006 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study found that Americans went from eating an average 3.8 meals and snacks a day to 4.9 a day over the last three decades — a 29% increase. The average American now consumes about 2,375 calories per day, about a third more than in the ’70s.

Portion sizes increased during that time too, but only by 12%. The authors say the real driver of our increased caloric intake is snacking. The data suggest that, assuming a constant tradition of three meals per day, the number of daily snacks has doubled.

Why? It’s the food environment: food is everywhere and snacking has become an acceptable norm. Look no further than your office. Without even leaving my desk, I can tell you at least four distinct locations in the offices of TIME where I know I can find high-calorie, highly palatable goodies. There’s a bowl of fun-size candy bars in the news director’s office. There’s a table in the bullpen laden with several kinds of cookies, including, right now, the iconic New York City Black & White. There are vending machines in the pantry packed with candy, chips and sugary sodas. And, inevitably, next to the printer on the south hall, there’s a bag of pretzels or bowls of chips and salsa or a cheese plate with wine. I could easily consume 800 calories in five minutes just by taking a lap around the office.

But the office environment isn’t the only diet buster. Health.com reported:

Lisa Young, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of “The Portion Teller,” agrees that the ubiquity of snack foods has helped drive overeating.

“You never used to see food staring you in the face when you went to…a drugstore,” says Young, who was not involved in the new research. “It’s in your face and it’s cheap. You go get a magazine, you can get a candy bar.”

Snacking isn’t necessarily bad; it can even be healthy. But it depends on the food you choose. If you’re going to snack, try to pick a food that’s healthy — something high in fiber and low in sugar. And while you’re at it, to keep your weight in check throughout your life, you should also be mindful of the quality of your overall diet, watch less TV and exercise consistently.

You can read the full Health.com story here.

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