To Snack, Or Not To Snack? Snacking Claims Examined
You'd think we'd have nutrition science down by now. After all, we’ve been eating since the cavewoman days. But alas, there are still so many theories, research studies, and diet books that cover nutrition, yet are all diametrically opposed.
Take snacking, for example. Should you eat small meals frequently, essentially snacking all day long, or should you eat three well-balanced meals? Frustratingly, you can actually find real research studies to support both. But not all data is created equal (remember when smoking was promoted by doctors?), so let me break it down for you.
The claim: Eat frequently to keep your metabolism fired up.
Fact: While the “eat more to weigh less” headline is often thrown around in the media, there is little evidence that the number of times a day you eat has an effect on your weight. There are, however, many studies that state otherwise, like this one published in the British Journal of Medicine, which found that when the same amount of calories were consumed, an increase in meal frequency did not offer any weight loss benefits.
Bottom line: Only eat when you're hungry; don't force yourself to eat a certain amount of times a day, especially if you find it hard to stop once you start. It is better to eat three nutrient-dense, high-fiber meals to keep you satiated throughout the day, and only have a snack between lunch and dinner if you need it.
The claim: Snacking helps you eat less at mealtimes.
Fact: Well, that depends entirely on what you are snacking on. If you’re snacking on empty calories, they will not curb your hunger or make you feel satiated, so it’s quite likely that you'll actually end up eating the same as you normally would at meals, leading to consuming more calories overall. There are studies that promote snacking, but the part that some people miss is that snacking has only been found to be beneficial when it consists of nutrient and water-dense foods.
Bottom line: The quality of your snack food will determine whether your snacking habit will help you lose or gain weight. If you are hungry for a snack, choose nutrient-dense, high-fiber, or water-dense foods, like a large handful of nuts, fresh veggies with guacamole, or fresh fruit. These should fill you up, so you'll indeed end up being less hungry at mealtime and will prevent overeating.
The claim: Eating frequently gives you more energy.
Fact: Eating frequently can actually zap your energy by forcing your body to constantly expend energy on digestion, when it can be expending it somewhere else.
When you eat constantly throughout the day, say every two to three hours, your stomach isn't able to finish digesting one meal before something new is thrown down the shoot.
Imagine you're cooking rice. You boil a pot of water and pour in a cup of rice. 10 minutes later, you pour in another cup of rice. And 10 minutes after that, you pour in a third cup. Nothing will cook evenly, right?
Now think of your stomach as that pot. When you eat something, it takes about two to six hours for your stomach to digest and prepare your food to send it to your intestines. By snacking consistently, before your stomach is finished digesting your last meal, you could be lengthening digestion time (and energy expenditure), as new food added to the stomach will delay the movement of it to the next phase of digestion.
Bottom line: Grazing throughout the day can actually zap you of energy, compared to eating fewer large, well-balanced meals.
Double bottom line: Refrain from snacking constantly or grazing all day long. That being said, if your tummy is rumbling, there’s no need to starve until dinner, as that can backfire and cause you to become ravenous. Make sure your three main meals consist of nutrient-dense, high-fiber, and water-dense foods, and you will find your snack craving wane. If you do get hungry, one snack midway between lunch and dinner is fine, as long as it meets at least one of those three criteria (no 100-calorie Oreo snack packs).