I came across an interesting study recently, which assessed the frequency of eating in individuals of ‘normal weight’, or who had lost weight and were maintaining that weight loss, or were ‘overweight’. The number of meals eaten in the day was essentially the same across the groups. However, for snacks it was different: Overall, those of normal weight and those who had lost weight ate more snacks than those deemed overweight. In other words, in this study, increased eating frequency was associated with lower weight. The authors of this study conclude that eating three meals a day with two snacks in between ‘may be important in weight loss maintenance.’
The suggestion here is that more frequent eating can help weight control. This may be the case (as I’ll explain later), but this study most certainly does not prove that. And that’s because it’s epidemiological in nature, and can only tell us that increased frequency of eating is associated with lower weight. The increased snacking may not have caused the lower weight. It might be that naturally heavier individuals are more likely to eschew snacks because they believe this will help them lose weight or reduce the risk of weight gain.
However, having said that, I find in practice that some well-timed snacking on the right sort of food (more on that later) can make a huge difference to someone’s attempts to eat healthily and lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
For some people the time that elapses between meals is just too long. This is usually more of a problem between lunch and dinner than between breakfast and lunch. Some people can eat lunch at 12.30 and not sit down to dinner until 8.00 or later. By this time hunger can be at such a level that it makes healthy eating almost impossible. Starchy carbs such as bread, pasta and rice are normally the order of the day at this point, perhaps preceded by some unhealthy snacking (e.g. crisps/potato chips) and followed with a none-too-healthy dessert. Also, rampant hunger can drive people to drink more alcohol than they ordinarily would. It’s a mess, isn’t it?
All of these issues can usually be circumvented with a snack of something sustaining in the late afternoon. The snack of choice? I think nuts. Their relatively protein-rich and slow sugar-releasing nature give them real staying power in terms of appetite suppression, in contrast to fruit which tends not to do the job nearly as well. For those who are allergic to nuts, seeds (e.g. pumpkin seeds) are a decent alternative.
However, snacks are not in some way mandatory. If you find you can go from meal to meal without getting unduly hungry, and can eat healthily and easily at meal times without conscious restraint, then snacking is unlikely to add much for you.
Also, be alive to the fact that how often you eat in a day can vary according to appetite – some days you may just need more food or more frequent eating than others.
For most people this comes out at 2 or 3 meals a day with 1-2 snacks a day. There are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is to eat enough of the right foods frequently enough to avoid getting ravenously hungry. This is what makes healthy eating (and weight control for that matter) easy and sustainable.
1. Bachman JL, et al. Eating frequency is higher in weight loss maintainers and normal-weight individuals than in overweight individuals. J Am Diet Asso 2011;111(11):1730-1734