America Has Become a Snacking Nation

March 7, 2023

Summary: Human eating habits or pattern has changed significantly in the last few decades. People are moving away from three meals a day to snacking whenever they like. Three meals a day was mainly a by-product of the industrial age. However, now people have easy access to food. They are even eating late in the evening. Unfortunately, many modern dietary recommendations have failed to consider this massive shift in eating patterns. If we ought to fight obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders, understanding snacking habits of people are essential.

When we talk about obesity, diabetes, and various metabolic disorders, we often talk about excessive calorie intake and wrong food choices. Many health experts recommend making dietary changes to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity. However, it appears that the problem is not exactly in the diet but in an eating pattern. Many people, anyway, do not have a hefty three-time meal. Instead, they eat all the time and snack most of the time.

It appears that eating pattern is undergoing significant transformation in the US, where people keep snacking most of the time and have meals in between. It means they are getting a considerable number of calories from snacks and not meals. That is why, even if they reduce the portion size of their meals, that will not help reduce obesity. In fact, cutting down on meals may be counterproductive. It means that if we have to counter this epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders, we need to focus on eating or dietary pattern. Eating habits have undergone considerable change in the last few decades. However, most nutrition recommendations still focus on three meals a day, that anyway is not relevant for many people.

Just consider the findings of the 2021 snacking survey by Mondelez. More than 60% of people now love snacking. They do not want to limit themselves to three meals a day and rather like to have snacks whenever they like. More than 80% of consumers believe that snacks help them improve their physical and mental health. It also means that role and definition of snacking have changed over time. It is no longer a way of having something light between meals. Instead, for many, snacks are the primary source of calories.

Even US statistics that are more reliable than certain surveys confirm this shift. For example, the US snacks market has grown from $116 billion to above $150 billion from 2017 to 2022. Yes, that is a very sharp and quick rise. Regretfully, most snacks are unhealthy, including crisps, Doritos, ice cream, snack bars, and so on. Sure, some snacks are healthier, like fruit snacks.

Chronic pain treatment and anxiety disorder can also be affected by eating patterns. It is vital to understand that dietary patterns keep changing, and they influence health. For example, even three meals a day were not standard a few centuries back. However, three meals a day were adopted as an eating pattern during the industrial revolution, and soon it became a golden standard. During the industrial revolution, people still have to work physically. Therefore, they had hefty breakfast, lunch to reenergize, and evening meals to revive. During the industrial age, snacks were mainly sold by street vendors, and they were associated with the working or poor class.

However, slowly, over time, things changed as snack production began on an industrial scale, and they started filling supermarket shelves. With that, attitudes towards snacks also started changing. Moreover, the incomes of people began rising, and snacks became relatively cheaper ways to fill the stomach; they could be readily afforded and did not require preparation. Therefore, they are a form of comfort food. However, over the years, they have started replacing cooked meals. Another significant change came with the introduction of the microwave in the mid-20th century. Now for the first time, people can buy packed foods and quickly convert those foods to warm meals.

Now slowly, people are moving away from the three meals-a-day habits. Instead, they snack whenever they like. It is not just about buying snacks and packed foods from supermarkets anymore. One can readily order any kind of food, and it will be delivered within 15 minutes. However, it also means that people can even have late-evening meals.

As one can see, human eating patterns are changing, and three meals a day is a thing of the past for many. Many people eat most time of the day. They are even eating food late in the evening. People are sleeping less and eating something most of the time. All this means that dietary recommendations must change by keeping in mind the rise of snacking if we have to fight obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.

By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP