Conventional wisdom often dictates that we should eat three meals a day with nothing in between. The idea here is that snacks just add to our calorie intake, and therefore can only contribute to our body weight. However, I find in practice that for successful weight management, more frequent feeding is required. Regular eating can, theoretically ‘stoke’ the metabolism, and may help temper insulin levels too [1,2] (and insulin is the chief hormone responsible for fat storage in the body).
The other thing, of course, is that regular eating can help stop the appetite running out of control. This is important because a rampant appetite can make it mightily difficult to make healthy food choices, both in terms of what and how much we eat. Put another way, snacking can make it much easier to eat healthily.
I was interested to read a study published this week which looked at the relationship between snacking and risk of being overweight . The study, published on-line in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that more frequent snacking was associated with a lower risk of being overweight. Snacking was associated with a reduced risk of having excess weight around the middle too.
Now, so-called ‘epidemiological’ studies of this nature only really tell us about associations between things, and this study therefore does not necessarily indicate that snacking protects against unhealthy weight gain. It is possible, say, that individuals of healthy weight quite naturally feel less need to restrict their food intake and are more relaxed about eating snacks. Also, overweight individuals may tend to under-report any snacking they partake in.
However, it should not be forgotten that there are quite sound reasons for why snacking might genuinely help protect against weight gain (see above). Plus, there are other studies which support the notion that snacking is generally good where weight management is concerned. For example, in one study, the more regularly individuals te, the lower their body weight and fatness tended to be . This association even remained after accounting for other factors that might help explain it, such as physical activity and overall food intake. In another study, individuals eating five or more times a day, compared to those eating three or fewer times each day, were half as likely to be overweight .
When it comes to what to snack on, I generally suggest nuts. Nuts are also a generally very nutritious food, and their consumption is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease including heart disease. But one of nuts’ best features, I think, is their capacity to sate the appetite effectively. This contrasts with, say, fruit, which tends not to sate the appetite very well at all. The slow sugar-releasing and relatively protein-rich nature of nuts almost certainly contribute to their appetite sating properties.
Despite their ability to quell hunger effectively, nuts tend to have a reputation as a fattening food. Actually, though, the evidence suggests that nuts do not promote weight gain. Some evidence suggests they actually promote weight loss.
One reason for this is that when people eat more nuts, they often simply eat less of other foods. For more about this, see here.
1. Jenkins, D J et al., ‘Nibbling versus gorging: advantages of increased meal frequency’, N Engl J Med 1989; 321(14): 929-34
2. Rashidi, M R, et al., ‘Effects of nibbling and gorging on lipid profiles, blood glucose and insulin levels in healthy subjects’, Saudi Med J 2003; 24(9): 945-48
3. Keast DR, et al. Snacking is associated with reduced risk of overweight and reduced abdominal obesity in adolescents: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2004. Am J Clin Nutr 16 June 2010 [epub ahead of print publication]
4. Ruidavets, J B et al., ‘Eating frequency and body fatness in middle-aged men’, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002; 26(11): 1476-83
5. Fabry, P et al., ‘The frequency of meals its relationship to overweight, hypercholesteremia, and decreased glucose-tolerance’, Lancet 1964; 2: 614-15