There are many questions about how to distribute your foods throughout the day. Will snacking help you lose weight? Will it make you gain weight or keep you from losing weight? Will snacks provide energy or boost your metabolism? Should you have a snack before you go to bed or not? If yes, which snacks will help you sleep?
As a general rule, snacking will not prevent weight loss or cause weight gain if the total calories you eat over the day is reasonable for your weight goal. Most of us need a certain amount of calories per day and it does not really matter how you break it up into meals and snacks.
There is a common misconception that grazing or eating small meals and snacks throughout the day will help with weight loss, arguably because it keeps your metabolism humming constantly. However, there hasn't been definitive evidence that shows snacking boosts metabolism.
That said, all food, in particular protein, has a slight thermogenic effect. That means it burns calories to digest the food. However, that small increase in calorie burning can have a negligible effect if you are consuming high-calorie foods. So grazing is fine if that's your preference, but be mindful of what you're eating.
Another potential benefit of snacking is that it helps to stave off extreme hunger and stabilize blood sugar. Hunger can lead to overeating at meals or making poor food choices. If you let yourself get too ravenous, you will likely have a harder time accurately gauging when you have eaten enough.
How to snack the healthy way
Snacking is an individual preference. However, snacking should not equate permission to eat junk foods. Eating whole, unprocessed foods for your snacks will stave off hunger and keep you from too many highs and lows in your blood sugar.
Healthy snacks are those that are low in sugar and contain a balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. The carbs give you an immediate energy boost, the protein kicks in with energy later, and the fat adds flavor and satiation.
Snacks that are high in fiber enhance that feeling of fullness and satisfaction. Great high-fiber snacks are those that are seed- and nut-based like one of my favorites, flaxseed crackers.
Popcorn is another good snack that is high in fiber and delivers some protein. A 1-ounce serving (about 3 cups) of air-popped popcorn has 4 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, just over 1 gram of fat, and has only 110 calories. This combination makes it a snack that will keep you satisfied until your next meal.
Should you have a snack before going to sleep? There are two schools of thought about this. It may be a myth that snacking before bed puts on the pounds.
A bedtime snack can keep your metabolism going, and if your snack contains healthy fats and complex carbs, it can help you sleep by stimulating the relaxing neurochemical serotonin. It's best to limit protein at bedtime since protein increases alertness.
Conversely, if you eat too many calories at night, many think that you will convert those calories to fat if you don't expend enough energy to use the food you are eating.
Trying to eat healthy in today's busy world is a challenge. Most people don't have time to put a lot of effort into preparing each snack, so planning multiple snacks at a time may be a good way to get a good balance of nutrients, fiber, protein, carbs, and fat.
Try some of these healthy snack suggestions:
- Hummus or guacamole with fresh vegetables and whole-grain pita wedges
- Apple with almond butter
- Chia, hemp, or flaxseed crackers with nut butter
- Roasted chickpeas
- Deviled eggs
- Roasted kale chips
- Peanut-butter-covered banana bites (especially great for post-workout!)
- Berries and Greek yogurt
- Cheese and whole-grain crackers
- Low sugar beef jerky
Lea Basch, M.S. R.D. is the Registered Dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. She has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years and was one of the founders of Longmont United Hospital’s nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. Basch received her bachelors and masters in nutrition and dietetics at Florida International University and a bachelors in education at the University of Florida. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances.