Is snacking bad for you? Not necessarily.

How many times you eat during the course of the day is less important than how much you eat between meals and what you choose to nibble on. Snacks can even be a good idea if they provide nutritious foods that are lacking from your regular meals.

Surveys show that six out of every 10 Americans consume some food or beverage between meals and three out of four have a bite before bed. Snacking is most common among children, least popular with the elderly.

Because between-meal eating now accounts for 15 percent of a typical adult's caloric intake and 25 percent of the average teen-ager's, snacks are having a major impact on the nutritional health of Americans. The potential problem is not so much that it's bad to eat six times a day instead of three, but rather what you choose for a snack. Time of day is not related to nutritional value; foods are either nutritious or not, regardless of whether they're eaten as a meal or as a snack.

As a result, snacks should be viewed in the context of an individual's total diet and nutritional needs. Whereas athletes and active youngsters can afford to be more liberal in the choice of snacks, more sedentary and older individuals should select low-calorie snacks. For example, a youngster might do well to have a mid-afternoon slice of pizza, while an office worker would do better with a piece of fruit.

Unfortunately, many traditional "snack" foods are inferior in quality and high in sugar, fat and salt, as well as calories. "Junk" foods that are low in nutrients and high in empty calories generally make poor snacks because they fill you up and make it less likely that you'll consume enough essential nutrients during regular meals.

Pastry and doughnuts are high in fats. Salted potato chips (also high in fat) as well as salted peanuts and pretzels are all high in sodium, which has been linked with high blood pressure. Sweet foods consumed between meals, such as candies, also contribute to tooth decay. Studies have shown that in creating dental cavities, the frequency with which sugared foods are eaten is more important than the amount consumed. Thus eating sweet snacks can do additional damage to your teeth.

Another problem with snacks is that the calories can really add up fast. Those extra calories may be fine for active children who quickly burn them up, but desk-bound adults who add a mid-morning Danish with their coffee break and a post-luncheon cupcake in mid-afternoon will tend to put on excess pounds.

Snacking per se does not appear to be a major cause of overweight. Indeed, if consumed in moderation, snacks can facilitate weight control, since eating a low-calorie snack between meals will prevent you from getting ravenous and then gorging. For example, you might defer the piece of fruit you packed with your lunch until midafternoon, when you're feeling hunger pangs.

Nutritious snacks include fruits and fruit juices, custards or milk puddings, yogurt, homemade popcorn (prepared with a small amount of oil and preferably without salt), unsalted pretzels, nuts or seeds, whole-grain cereals, cheese and crackers, bread sticks, graham crackers and raw vegetables such as carrots and celery sticks.

With snacks, as with regular meals, the important thing is to be aware of the nutritional value of the food. Snacks can be an important component of a healthful diet, provided you eat a variety of foods and avoid an excess of sugary, fatty or salty fare.