Snacking All at Once or Over Several Days

The healthiest way to eat a high-calorie snack

Brownie Bites

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It's a question you've probably asked yourself: Is it worse to eat a whole pan of brownies (or pint of ice cream, package of cookies, or other indulgent treat) in one sitting or to spread it out over four or five days? The truth is, it's not easy to find research that explicitly tells you if eating a high-calorie treat is more detrimental if eaten all at once, or consumed over a longer period.

Nutrition experts do have advice about discretionary calories, which are the extra calories you can spend on whatever decadent food you want after you've met your nutritional needs for the day. The number of calories available differs for everyone, but if the rest of your daily diet is made up of nutrient-dense foods, you may have calories left over for "extras" that can be used on treats (that is, food that are mostly fat and sugars) and still stay below your recommended daily calorie count. Discretionary calories are great because they allow you to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation.

Back to the Brownie Question

To give you an idea of how high-calorie treats would fit into your diet, let's use brownies as an example. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, one large brownie (about 3 inches square and 1 inch thick) has more than 220 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 20 grams of sugar. Eating one brownie every day could fit many people's discretionary calorie category, and as long as you stick to only one, or maybe one-half of a brownie each day (though that would take a lot of willpower), the damage done by the brownies should be negligible—for instance, you may still meet the American Heart Association recommendation that no more than half of a person's daily discretionary calorie allowance be spent on added sugars. Of course, you'd have to give up any other treats such as cookies, candy, chips, or that mocha latte.

What happens if you eat the whole pan in one gloriously decadent day of brownie-eating delight? Eating an entire nine by nine pan (about nine brownies) would amount to around 2,041 calories extra calories, mostly from large amounts of sugar and fat (dangerous if you have a health condition such as diabetes). On the plus side, you'd get a lot of iron, B-complex vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, but not enough to make it worth the extra calories.

What if you eat two brownies per day and spread out the chocolaty goodness into a four or five-day span? In this case, you'd get about 440 extra calories per day, which—unless you need a huge number of calories—is still going to be more than what's available for daily discretionary use. Of course, you could up your physical activity for those days to make up the difference, but it takes a lot of exercise to burn 440 calories. For example, a 154-pound man would have to walk more than four miles in an hour to burn that many calories.

The reality is that eating all the brownies in one day isn't a good idea, especially if you have a health condition like diabetes or heart disease. But eating them all in a few days' time isn't much better. In either case, you're taking in too many calories, too much fat, and too much sugar in a relatively short period. The decision about which is worse comes down to how it affects your overall eating habits. If eating that pan of brownies becomes habit forming, you're looking at eating problems and gaining excess pounds.

Binge Eating and Overeating

Eating a whole pan of brownies would qualify as an eating binge, and if it's a rare thing for you, it may not cause any long-term damage. However, if you're prone to binge eating, then downing all nine brownies might trigger an eating behavior that's not good for you.

On the other hand, eating two brownies every day might establish an ongoing bad habit, especially if you find yourself seeking out sweet treats every day after you've eaten all the brownies.

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