Find yourself reaching for a protein bar, a few handfuls of popcorn or a couple of cookies mid-afternoon? You’re part of the majority of Americans who love to snack. As a country, we’re now eating in between meals more than ever before. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of snacking occasions rose from 505 to 530 annually per person, according to a recent report
from The NPD Group. The pandemic accelerated snacking, too. And we’re even eating more snack foods
at meals these days, according to the same report: Snack foods rose from 21 percent of eatings in 2010 to 26 percent in 2020.
It’s one thing to plan out healthy snacks
, ensuring you’re getting an adequate mix of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats — but another to snack mindlessly, without giving thought to portions or nutrition. This constant approach to snacking is also called grazing, defined as frequent eating throughout the day at undefined periods, with undefined portions of whatever foods are close at hand. But could this seemingly wild strategy ever be a smart way to eat? We asked the experts.
What is grazing?
Grazing is convenient, requires no planning (technically) and can make eating feel like less of a hassle if you find yourself short on time, says Dustin Moore, MS, RD
, a lecturer and doctoral student at University of California, Irvine. However, he doesn’t recommend grazing as a healthy eating strategy. “What you gain in convenience, you’ll likely sacrifice in poor nutritional quality and overconsumption of calories,” he adds.
It gets a little confusing when it comes to the science, however. Things don’t look good when you consider that grazing is prevalent in adults with eating disorders
and obesity, leading to poor outcomes with weight loss, lower moods and decreased mental health-related quality of life, according to a 2017 study
in Clinical Psychology Review
. Grazing goes against much of the benefits of intermittent fasting
, which have come to light more recently. And a 2019 study
concluded that reduced meal frequency (two to three meals per day) provides psychological benefits such as reduced inflammation and improved circadian rhythm — again, in direct opposition of grazing.
Potential benefits of grazing
However, there are some upsides to eating more often throughout the day. “Grazing can help keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable, as compared to eating large meals two or three times per day,” says Lauren Minchen, MPH, RDN, CDN
, a nutrition consultant for Freshbit
, an AI-driven visual diet diary app. She adds that grazers may experience less indigestion and heartburn due to simply having less digestion work to do at any one given time. This smoother digestion and more controlled blood sugar may ultimately lead to less body fat (particularly around the midsection) and a healthier cardiovascular system. That’s all provided you don’t overdo it on portions
The discussion around grazing now is focused on the intent behind it, says Minchen. There’s a big difference between grazing mindfully
with the purpose of healthy eating or weight control, and grazing turning into overeating
and losing control of your choices (i.e., eating impulsively). Watch out if you find yourself grazing when you’re not even hungry. A 2018 survey
found that 43 percent of U.S. consumers snack because they’re hungry in between meals, while 29 percent nosh to give themselves a treat, and 26 percent snack simply because they’re bored. That means the majority of snackers (57 percent) are doing so for reasons other than hunger — which can lead to consumption of excess calories and ultimately, weight gain.
Erin Stokes, medical director at MegaFood
, says while she’s a firm believer in eating healthy snacks between meals, everyone needs to find the eating pattern that’s best for their personal health. “It’s important to follow your internal cues around hunger and satiety, and sometimes grazing can mute these cues,” she explains.
Best practices for grazing
If you are going to try out grazing, the healthy way, keep a couple golden rules in mind. First, portion your food into a small bowl or vessel instead of just grabbing the entire bag or container, says Moore. Second, aim to eat a snack that provides at least 5 grams of protein per serving, which will help curb cravings and keep you feeling satisfied until your next meal. Third, always keep your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy choices.
“Just like animals whose only choice is to graze what they find in the pasture, you’re only able to eat what is close at hand,” says Moore. With that in mind, he recommends surrounding yourself with the good stuff: Think protein-rich snacks like Greek yogurt cups (stacked in the front of your fridge so you’ll see them) and plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, like tangerines and avocados. There’s nothing wrong with treats here and there, but these should be in the background, out of your direct line of sight, says Moore (who keeps chocolate on top of his fridge — pro tip!).
A few more ideas for grazing snacks that provide one serving of protein, one serving of carbohydrates and one serving of healthy fats, from Michen:
- 2 hard-boiled eggs with 1 serving Triscuits
- 2 slices low-sodium chicken breast with 3 T. hummus and an apple
- ¾ cup 4% plain Greek yogurt mixed with 1 cup berries
The bottom line on grazing
Mindless grazing works well for animals — not so much for humans. But, don’t worry if you fall into this pattern from time to time. You are
only human, after all. “We should exert a slightly greater effort to surround ourselves with [nutritious food] so that if we do feel the need to graze,” says Moore, “we have great options,and make eating a healthy diet easier.”