To snack or not to snack…
This is the question? Over the last few years many diet experts have been proponents of snacking in between meals. The idea behind this is to stave off hunger and prevent poor food choices because you are ridiculously hungry and some claim snacking can regulate blood sugar, which may prevent those energy highs and lows throughout the day. Recently, however I have seen an ‘about turn’ on this advice and many guru’s are claiming ‘absolutely no snacking allowed!’ to ensure metabolic health and weight loss.
Now I am really confused! So I decided to do some digging into the latest research to find out just what all the fuss is about.
Snacking and weight loss
Many studies have shown that snacking has conflicting results in the weight loss arena. In a controlled environment there have been positive results including significant weight loss, increased satiety, improved glucose control and a more regulated appetite. However, in reality snacking might actually add to the total calories taken in per day, as regular meals have not been adjusted to allow for the extra calories in the snacks taken. In the USA a study showed that the average American is eating a whopping 480 calories more than 30 years ago – mostly from poor snack choices!
Snacking and metabolic response
Many studies show that snacking has a favourable impact on glucose control, reduced insulin secretion and other health markers such as; lowering Free Fatty Acids (FFA) and Triglycerides (TG), lowering Total Cholesterol (TC), lowering LDL and raising HDL. However, the studies I looked at were on people that were obese or had health issues. Some studies also showed a positive effect on appetite hormones such as grhelin and PYY on obese people. However, I must say again – healthy snacking – not a couple of choccie biscuits during your coffee break!
Snacking and stress
If you are having a really stressful time then snacking (on the right foods) can be a good idea. Going long stretches with-out food can cause a stress response or ‘fight or flight’ raising your cortisol levels further. Having regular small meals can keep you on an even keel. However, if you are in good health meal restriction (as in the 5:2 diet) has shown positive health benefits. Increasing stress slightly can improve immune function, cognition and metabolic health markers.
Snacking and life stage
Certain life stages actually require snacking to maintain optimal health. Young children do well with healthy snacking and seem to be more able to naturally adjust the calorie intake in their main meals. Some pregnant women particularly in the later stages of pregnancy when larger meals may cause acid reflux and general discomfort do well with healthy snacks. The elderly population also may have reduced appetite due to ill health, digestive complaints and inactivity. Small, regular meals may give them a steady input of much needed nutrients throughout the day.
What, when and why
Nutritional composition and density are important aspects of snacking. Some studies show that a higher protein snack, such as a live yogurt or a boiled egg, can be more satiating (filling) than a high carbohydrate snack, particularly high sugar/fat snack such as a chocolate bar or a doughnut.
Timing is another important aspect of snacking. Only snack when you are hungry, it is really easy to get caught up with what ‘the experts’ tell you to do. If you are not hungry – don’t eat! That being said, think about your meal spacing, for example; I don’t snack in the morning as I eat lunch at midday with my children. However, there is a long gap till dinner with my partner, so I always have a healthy snack mid afternoon when my energy is flagging and this keeps me going. Everybody’s routine will be different, so think about your circumstances and plan for that.
Why you are snacking is also a really important element. Think about why you are eating; are you bored, emotional, hungry, tired, thirsty, the latest diet has told you to? Get in touch with what your body is telling you.
- Don’t snack unless you are really hungry.
- Avoid high sugar, fat and nutritionally ‘empty’ snacks
- Choose low GL, higher protein, nutrient dense snacks.
- Adjust your main meals accordingly to allow for the calorific intake of snacks if weight loss is your aim.
- Healthy snacking may be a good idea if you are under physical and/or emotional stress.
- Snacking may benefit those with T2DM, CHD and metabolic syndrome although studies are conflicting.
- It is not that snacking is good or bad; it’s what, when and why that matters.
- If you have eaten a balanced meal a healthy body should be able to go 5 hours without needing food.
Healthy snacks to try:
- Boiled egg dipped in toasted sesame seeds or cumin.
- Apple slices spread with nut butter.
- Celery topped with roasted red pepper hummus.
- A piece of fruit with ¼ cup of nuts.
- Oat cakes topped with cottage cheese.
- 30g of 85% dark chocolate.