The average U.S. adult eats a meal’s worth of snacks every day, a new study suggests.

Americans average about 400 to 500 calories in snacks daily, often more than what they ate at breakfast, according to data from more than 23,000 people.

These extra calories offer little in the way of actual nutrition, said senior researcher Christopher Taylor, a professor of medical dietetics with Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“Snacks are contributing a meal’s worth of intake to what we eat without it actually being a meal,” Taylor noted in a university news release.

“You know what dinner is going to be: a protein, a side dish or two,” Taylor added. “But if you eat a meal of what you eat for snacks, it becomes a completely different scenario of, generally, carbohydrates, sugars, not much protein, not much fruit, not a vegetable. So it’s not a fully well-rounded meal.”

There’s one bright spot – people with type 2 diabetes tended to eat fewer sugary foods and snacked less overall than either those without diabetes or with prediabetes.

“Diabetes education looks like it’s working, but we might need to bump education back to people who are at risk for diabetes and even to people with normal blood glucose levels to start improving dietary behaviors before people develop chronic disease,” Taylor said.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from people aged 30 or older who participated between 2005 and 2016 in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The survey asks patients to recall both what they ate during a 24-period as well as when they ate it.

Snacks accounted for between 20% and 22% of total energy intake across all participants, while contributing very little nutritional quality, researchers said.

Snacks typically consisted of foods high in carbs and fats, sweets, alcoholic beverages and sugar-sweetened drinks. Less often, people also snacked on protein, milk and dairy, fruits, grains or vegetables.

The new study was published recently in journal PLOS Global Public Health.

Taylor admitted that a 24-hour dietary recall doesn’t necessarily reflect how people usually eat.

Still, “it gives us a really good snapshot of a large number of people,” Taylor said. “And that can help us understand what’s going on, where nutritional gaps might be and the education we can provide.”

The fact that people with diabetes had healthier snacking habits shows that dietary education can help people change their ways, Taylor said.

However, he advocates a more holistic approach to eating right.

“We need to go from just less added sugar to healthier snacking patterns,” Taylor said. “We’ve gotten to a point of demonizing individual foods, but we have to look at the total picture. Removing added sugars won’t automatically make the vitamin C, vitamin D, phosphorus and iron better. And if we take out refined grains, we lose nutrients that come with fortification.”

Taylor emphasized looking at a day’s entire dietary picture, and setting the table in advance for snacks that will fill the gaps in nutritional needs.

“Especially during the holidays, it’s all about the environment and what you have available, and planning accordingly. And it’s about shopping behavior: What do we have in the home?” Taylor said.

“We think about what we’re going to pack for lunch and cook for dinner, but we don’t plan that way for our snacks,” he added. “Then you’re at the mercy of what’s available in your environment.”

More information

The American Heart Association has more about healthy snacking.

SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, Dec. 15, 2023