Most of my day is planned around snacking. It's been that way ever since middle school, when my friend Kate and I would trade Goldfish and potato chips under our desks during history class. Ever since then, I've been an avid snacker. If there were an Olympic event for snacking, I'd bring home the gold every time.
In 2015, Mintel reported that 94 percent of adults in the U.S. snack at least once a day. More than half of us snack two to three times a day. The majority of us admit that pretty much anything counts as a snack, whether it's a packet of crackers or a sandwich. Millennials, especially, love snacking; researchers say we're considered the "emotional or functional snackers." We eat when we're bored. We eat when we're sad. Millennials also tend to snack to bulk up on energy throughout the work day or improve their concentration. And while it may sound completely harmless on the surface, there are consequences to our incessant grazing habits.
Most snacks we reach for are packaged, highly-processed foods that are spoiling our appetite and preventing us from giving our body the nutrients it needs to function properly. I hate to admit it, but that's certainly become my fate. I can't remember the last time I sat down to dinner, hungry and looking forward to my meal — because I'm usually full from whatever I had distractedly snacked on earlier in the car. Most of the time, snacking has replaced my mealtimes entirely.
But is it really a problem? We also hear that snacking might be good for you. Researchers at Harvard have found that frequently eating small meals throughout the day is best for keeping your energy levels high. They say that people who eat one big lunch may result in a big increase in blood sugar, which equals a nasty crash later on. So which is it? Is snacking throughout the day better for you or not? I decided to find out.
The golden rule for this experiment was plain and simple: No munching on anything between meals. Because I didn't want to deprive myself of food, this meant I would have to change up my eating habits and make it a point to eat big, hearty meals three times a day. I planned out recipes, stocked my pantry and kitchen with the necessary ingredients, and mentally prepared myself for two whole weeks without grazing.
I didn't go into this with any intention of dieting or losing weight. Instead, I put my focus on whether my outlook on food would change. I spend most of my time snacking in front of a computer or my phone, so I hoped giving up that bad habit would allow me to notice and enjoy my food more. Finally, I decided to keep an eye on my energy levels. I was curious to see if it would be easier or harder to get through the day without chewing on some fuel when I hit a lull.
Days 1 & 2
I deliberately set aside some time to make myself a breakfast that covered all the major food groups, instead of shoving down granola bars at 11 a.m. like I normally do. I scrambled a couple eggs with a big handful of fresh spinach, then basically threw my afternoon snack onto the plate for good measure. I figured it was a good enough meal with sufficient protein and healthy fats to keep me satisfied until lunch.
Seated at my dining room table like some kind of grown-up, I felt uncomfortably full when I was done. I'm not used to eating that much in the morning, so it felt strange at first. The slight bloating went away within an hour, though, and I was left feeling pleasantly full for several hours to come. Lunchtime came in the blink of an eye, without any urges to eat something from a crinkly wrapper. So far, so good.
The next day was pretty much the same. I kicked off the morning with a huge breakfast, which carried me all the way through lunch. The late afternoon has always been a trouble spot for me. It's when I get peckish and will pretty much eat anything that looks remotely crunchy. I felt a slight rumbling in my tummy at 4 p.m., but didn't notice any weird cravings. I held out until I finished cooking baked fish for dinner. I don't know if it was because I was so hungry or because I had found a winner of a recipe, but dinner was so delicious it nearly brought me to tears.
Days 3 & 4
It was about 11 a.m. when I started fantasizing about a midday snack while at the park. I started to picture a warm muffin in my hands and the sounds of ripping open a power bar. My daydream became even more intolerable when I gave Ava, my friend's dog, her bone-shaped treat for following orders so nicely. I watched her chomp away on her snack in envy.
My stomach was screaming at me by 2 p.m.. I'd had an early breakfast, with no fuel in between, and I needed something to eat, stat. When I got home, I whipped up a huge salad and roasted sweet potatoes and ate it in such a hurry I got indigestion and needed a nap afterwards. So much for a boost in energy.
The next day, I wasn't about to make the same mistake. I planned the whole day out and made sure I didn't reach the point of starvation before I sat down for a meal. Like some kind of adult, I actually packed a large lunch for myself (leftover frittata, homemade trail mix, and an apple), which carried me straight through the late afternoon without any whining from my stomach.
Days 5 & 6
I was starting to hit my stride at this point. Day 5 was easy to get through. I wrapped up the day by cooking a big dinner and catching up on my favorite bad TV. Watching TV has been synonymous with snack-time for years, so before I went crazy and ripped my pantry apart, I ate some chocolate at the end of dinner. I didn't mindlessly munch on it in front of my computer screen, though. Rather, I enjoyed it at the table, like it was a third course of an extended dinner. As a result, I cruised through the night without any urges to nibble at anything. I was as surprised as anyone.
The next evening, we had dinner planned with my boyfriend's parents, whom I hadn't seen in over a year because of all our traveling. As I glanced at the menu and sipped on a glass of Shiraz, I noticed my stomach growling, but in a friendly way. It was gently reminding me that I was hungry, and that I was about to sink my teeth into some of the best seafood in town. I couldn't remember the last time I felt this excited to eat dinner. It was like being a kid on Christmas morning, only instead of furry pajamas I was kicking back in a tight skirt and Docs. The goodies started coming out one by one: raw, buttery oysters, garlic bread, grilled fish, and roasted veggies. The sensory overload was mind-blowing. I left the restaurant on cloud nine, completely satisfied.
Days 7 & 8
I had dinner plans with my girlfriend on the night of Day 7 around 8:30 p.m. I'm not great with late dinners — I visited Spain once and nearly had a heart attack when my friends in Barcelona asked me to meet them for dinner at midnight. But I hadn't seen my friend Joanne in a long time, so I was willing to sacrifice.
I deliberately had a late lunch around 3 p.m., thinking as I ate my veggie panini how good I was getting at planning ahead. Things started to unravel when Jo called me at 8:10 to say she was running even later than expected, and that she would pick me up in an hour. My stomach growled in protest. I was hungry, but, more importantly, I was grumpy as hell. However, I wasn't about to break my streak. I refused to give in to the enticing bag of chips in my pantry, or the juicy apple in the fruit basket. I was too stubborn.
When she finally picked me up, we hauled our hungry asses to a Thai joint whose food is notorious for being wildly delicious and, more importantly, quick to land on your table. When drunken noodles arrived, along with mushroom stir fry and corn fritters, I ate with such an urgency I nearly stabbed myself with the chopsticks.
We paid our bill and Jo looked at me with a clever look in her eyes and said, "Dessert?" What kind of friend would I be if said no?! A bad one, obviously. We walked a block down the road and got double scoop ice cream cones. I inhaled mine, and collapsed on my couch when I got home. The next day, I walked around with such a bellyache I didn't have any interest in food until midday.
Days 9 & 10
OK, so the last two days weren't great, but you can pick yourself back up, I thought to myself as I woke up on the morning of Day 9. As I was standing in the kitchen trying to drum up an idea of what to cook for breakfast, my SO walked in the house after teaching an early yoga class and handed me a small brown paper bag. Inside it was a breakfast bread from a vegan Paleo cafe, made with delicious things like raspberries, almond meal, coconut oil, and honey. Normally, I would have eaten it standing there with the fridge open, but something about doing that felt too snack-like. I put my brekkie bread in a plate, took out a fork, and sat down to eat it. My boyfriend teased me, but I didn't even care. I'd turned my snack into my meal.
Starting my morning off on that note gave me the momentum I needed to cruise through the rest of the day and the next without any hiccups. When I started to feel a little tired on the afternoon of Day 10, my first instinct, surprisingly, wasn't to nosh. It was to go for an evening walk before coming home to cook dinner. Clearly, I wasn't relying on snacks anymore for a pick-me-up.
Days 11 & 12
Without being able to rely on snacks for a quick fix, I had spent the last week-and-a-half cooking up a storm at home. It left me quite tired, though, so I made the executive decision to go out for dinner. As we savored each bite of the spring rolls that came out first, it registered in my head that the whole experience of dining out had become different for me. Because I was actually hungry when I sat down to dinner these days, my senses were heightened and I was more interested in what was happening around the table. It felt like my SO and I were on a real-life date, not just an outing where we shove food into our faces. We left the restaurant holding hands and singing praises for our yummy wonton soup.
Days 13 & 14
The hardest part of the last two weeks was the fact that my SO wasn't doing this experiment with me. He was still snacking this whole time, so there were a few times I had to remove myself from his vicinity for fear that I would give in. But it was the weekend now, and there was no escaping him as we both relaxed on the couch next to each other. On my way out the door to grab a few bottles of wine, I asked him if he wanted anything.
"Salt and vinegar chips, please," he said nonchalantly.
I secretly hoped they would be sold out, because these particular chips he was talking about are our absolute favorite, and it's impossible to just have a handful or two of then, especially on the weekend. Unfortunately, they had plenty of the sea salt and balsamic vinegar variation, so I grabbed a bag in defeat, and walked home. My boyfriend opened them in a hurry and proceeded to eat them on the couch. He was wrapped up in a blanket and looked way too cozy and happy.
I snuggled up beside him and threw my hand into the bag. It was 6 p.m. We didn't have dinner plans yet. This was the definition of snacking. But I didn't care. I worked hard these past 13 days and I deserved to savor the crunch of something salty. The experiment was officially over.
One of the biggest changes over the last two weeks was how much time I was spending in the kitchen. I cooked breakfast and dinner almost every single night, and I packed my l lunch quite a few times as well. I was handling food more often, and thus had better control over what was going into my body. That resulted in healthier choices, which paved the way for more energy throughout the day and less sugar crashes in the late afternoon.
There were definitely some times when I crossed over into hangry territory, though. I realized that those are the times when snacks serve a worthy purpose for me. Coming to terms with that helped me see that, while significantly reducing my level of snacking might be a good general rule to live by, I need to be able to identify those moments when my body needs a little something that will prevent my getting too hungry and consequently overeating in a wild rush later on, since there's nothing pleasant or healthy about indigestion. Besides, those Harvard scientists were right — if I don't keep myself fueled often enough, my energy levels go haywire and I have trouble making it through my day.
For me, not snacking lit up my taste buds and made me notice the different textures, flavors, and smells of the food I was eating. I found that to be much more enjoyable than thoughtlessly tossing back one pretzel after the next. Since the experiment has ended, I've been holding off on snacking almost every day, unless I find myself in a mini-emergency, for just this reason. When it comes to the weekends, though, I treat myself to a nosh in between meals here and there, free of guilt. lt's just a snack, after all.
Images: Gina Florio; gmflorio (6)/Instagram