The skinny on snacks
First the scientific community told us snacking would lead to weight gain. Then they told us it would help us lose weight. So, therefore, are snacks a good or a bad idea?
As with most matters health-related, it’s complicated. And yes, it really does depend on you, the individual – and, of course, on what you eat.
The key is to find out which approach to eating works best for you, and whether you function best by eating three healthy, substantial meals per day, or four to six smaller meals.
Whichever it is, your primary goal should be to keep a check on your “kilojoules in” and “kilojoules out”, taking care not to consume more energy than you burn throughout the course of the day.
Snacking and weight gain
Some experts have attributed the present obesity epidemic – and the high prevalence of associated diseases such as hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes – to a growing trend toward snacking.
If you’re reading this in an office, just look around you – chances are that many of your colleagues are snacking on sweets, chips, cookies and other unhealthy snacks (or you’ll see the evidence in their wastepaper baskets). If you look at their bodies, you might notice that some of them are overweight.
The reality is that snacking often contributes many kilojoules, but little nutrition to the diet.
Some research shows that snacking (regardless of the snacks’ nutritional composition) may impact significantly on our risk of overeating and, potentially, weight gain – as well as associated diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The primary reason, researchers say, is a lack of compensation later in the day; in other words, we don’t necessary consume less at other eating times.
In the July 2014 edition of Physiology & Behaviour, researcher France Bellisle writes that eating when we’re not hungry; in response to external non-physiological cues (e.g. a colleague eats a sweet and now you crave one too); in an irregular fashion; and in contexts that don’t favour attention to the act of eating (e.g. snacking while you’re watching a movie or working on your computer), might be crucial factors determining the effects of snacking.
So, the less attention we give to the snacks we eat and when and where we eat them, the greater the chance that these foods could have a negative effect on our weight and nutrition in general.
Snacking and eating less at mealtimes
But snacking definitely isn’t all bad. Other major studies say snacking can, in fact, benefit us in several important ways - if you know what you're doing.
As early as the 1960s, Fabry et al. noted that there seems to be an inverse relationship between how often we eat and excess fat, as well as the prevalence of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. In other words, the more often we eat, the smaller our risk for overweight and chronic disease.
Since then, the majority of studies on eating frequency have shown similar results.
The French, for example, often eat what can be thought of as a small fourth meal (or large snack) between traditional lunch and dinner times. Research showed that, in contrast to people who don’t eat this fourth meal, those who do compensate for it at the next meal – not only by eating later but also by eating less. Also, their blood-sugar levels decreased just before they chose to eat the fourth meal.
One study of overweight men furthermore found that those who ate a little bit every hour consumed 27% fewer kilojoules at lunch. And studies from the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society show that eating more frequently helps control appetite, preventing us from overeating at meals.
Snacking: what to do?
So, you see, research regarding the pros and cons of snacking is still very contradictory and we’re once again left confused. Further research may bring us a clearer answer about whether snacking helps or hinders weight control.
But what, in the meantime, are we to do?
The first step, dieticians say, is to control our portion sizes carefully during snack and meal times.
The American Institute for Cancer Research emphasises that eating too much, even wholesome foods, isn't healthy. Helpful strategies in terms of portion control include ordering a small serving when eating out and, at home or at the office, portioning out one handful of a snack onto a plate or napkin rather than eating directly from a package.
Choice of food is the other very important consideration. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, yoghurt and wholegrain low-GI bread with peanut butter, avo or cottage cheese (one slice only) all make excellent snacks, especially since their proportion of nutrients to kilojoules is good. Always steer clear of processed, low-fibre, high-salt and/or high-sugar foods, such as sweets, cookies and chips. These foods only wreak havoc on your blood-sugar levels, and won't leave you feeling satisfied. This, in turn, could lead to overeating later in the day. In addition, processed foods are generally low in good-for-you nutrients, like vitamins and minerals.
The last consideration is to question whether you’re really hungry, or not, and to check your satiety levels while you consume a meal or a snack. The urge to eat can stem not from hunger but from impulse, stress, boredom or the influence of others. Recognising these urges may help you make wiser decisions in terms of when – and what – to eat.
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