‘Meal’ or ‘snack’? What You Call Your Meals Can Prevent Overeating

Man looking for food in fridge
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If you sit down to a “meal,” will you eat more than if you just want to grab a quick “snack”? And does the name even matter?

Actually, it does. What you call your meals—no matter the amount or kind—could help change how much you end up eating, says a recent study from the University of Surrey in the U.K.

For this novel research, which appeared in the journal Appetite, psychologists gave 80 people about 3 cups of pasta that equaled roughly 500 calories. Some people were served the pasta in plastic bowls labeled with “snack”; they were told to eat it standing up and were given plastic forks. Another group received a “meal” served on a ceramic plate; they ate it sitting down, and were given metal forks while seated at a table. After the pasta, they were then asked to taste some other foods—animal crackers, M&Ms, and cheese crackers.

The result? “Snackers” ate 50% more total calories and 100% more M&Ms than those who had the sit-down “meal.”

But why? The researchers theorize that calling a meal a “snack” while we’re up and about may distract us from how much food we’re eating. It seems people think of snacks as more of an afterthought—and therefore not very memorable—compared to sitting down to a “real” meal.

“With our lives getting busier… people are eating on the go and consuming foods labelled as ‘snacks’ to sustain them,” said study head Jane Ogden, Ph.D., professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey. “What we have found is that those who are consuming snacks are more likely to overeat, as they may not realize or even remember what they have eaten. To overcome this, we should call our food a meal and eat it as meal, helping make us more aware of what we are eating so that we don’t overeat later on.”

Trying to cut down on your own snacking binges? Check out these 10 foods that will fill you up and lose weight, and these 15 foods that will make you feel fuller for longer.