A market analysis of the snack industry sums up our obsession with nibbling: "Americans love snacking, a fact that will not change in the foreseeable future," according to the 2011 report by Packaged Facts.
"The children of today, comfortable with replacing entire meals with snacks, will pass these lifestyle traits on to their children, ensuring that snacking will remain a big part of American life."
Two studies from 2010 by University of North Carolina researchers looked at snacking trends between 1977 and 2006 and found that children now eat three snacks a day and adults snack twice a day. That is one additional snack for each group compared with 30 years ago.
Three square meals don't exist anymore, said Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Packaged Facts, a publishing company that focuses on consumer product research. "Meals and snacks have become all blurred together." The authors of the report concluded that "our children are moving toward constant eating."
Signs that snacking is an accepted way of life are everywhere. Car seats for toddlers are often equipped with not one but two cupholders. Fast food restaurants display snack menus. Many grammar schools incorporate snack time into daily schedules, and snacks are practically mandatory at youth events -- even activities like pottery class that aren't particularly strenuous.
The snack explosion is driven by Americans' on-the-run lifestyle, said Finkel. "A family used to sit down for a meal together when I was a kid, and snack time was something that happened once a day and was very specific," he said. "Now, snack time is anytime you are in the car, running from one thing to another and needing a boost."
Americans are consuming about 500 more daily calories today than we were 30 years ago, largely from snacks and larger portion sizes.
Curb your snacking
• Before you snack, ask yourself if you are truly hungry.
• Drink water instead of juice, lemonade or sports drinks.
• Avoid casual eating in front of the TV.
• Snack on nuts or seeds instead of a granola bar.
• Choose high-protein snacks like hard-boiled eggs, legumes and canned tuna.
• Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice.
• Dip fruit into nut butters.