Is snacking between meals a healthy habit? Learn what the research says about snacking. Not all snacking leads to good health, but following some healthy snack tips can help in weight loss and maintenance.
When I joined my local gym recently in order to keep active during the cold winter months, I was offered a Welcome Workout with a personal trainer. The session consisted of assessing my fitness levels and goals, followed by a trainer-led workout. That sounded fun, so I signed right up.
My personal trainer was young, looked like he spent his salary on tattoos and was currently winning “the longest beard in the room” contest. He didn’t look professional, sound professional (I admit I am a bit of a grammar snob) or show any initiative in going beyond the required questions on the fitness form. He didn’t inspire confidence so I did not take him seriously.
When diet came up in the conversation and I said I didn’t like to snack, my personal trainer insisted that I should eat snacks so my metabolism would not stop working. I was skeptical. “So I have to eat more to lose weight?” I questioned. When he assured me this was correct, I brushed him off, anxious to get to the workout.
However something changed at the end of the workout when he evaluated my performance of his resistance exercises. He said he noticed my ankles were weak. During running, he said, my hips may be compensating for ankle weakness which in turn could lead to the hip pain I had been feeling lately following my daily runs. Suddenly I started paying attention to him because finding the solution to my hip pain following running had been forefront in my thoughts for months.
This young guy offered insight into one fitness problem, so maybe he knew what he was talking about. I reflected on his snack advice and decided not to disregard it outright, but rather to do some research. My research led me to some very interesting and conflicting facts about snacking.
How many calories we eat for a snack matters. The latest survey from the US government What we eat in America, shows that Americans are eating more calories a day due to snacking. Women average 400 calories and men average 600 calories from snacking.2 If people do not cut back on the calories they eat during the day due to snacking, and these calories are not burned in other ways, it could lead to weight gain at a pretty rapid pace.
What we eat for a snack matters. Fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains are foods that can give us energy and nutrition. Are Americans eating these healthy foods? According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2004), participants who snacked during the day ate more fruit, whole grains and milk than those who did not snack – but not by very much (51.6 vs 49.3 out of a scale of 100).1 It wasn’t overwhelming evidence that people are healthier if they snack. In fact, the top snacks Americans are consuming include sugar-sweetened beverages, chips/crackers, candy and pastries – all of which are foods high in fat and sugar and low in nutrients.2
Snacking results are not the same for everyone. Does daily snacking result in weight loss or weight gain? Research results about snacking and weight show mixed conclusions about the effect of snacking on weight loss or weight maintenance. In one study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, men and women who snacked were thinner than people who did not snack during the day.3 However, research reported in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, showed that snacking helped men, but not women lose weight.4
When we eat matters. One final study reported in Appetite reported on two groups, each given the same amount of breakfast food. One group ate the whole meal in one sitting, while the other group broke the meal into smaller segments eaten every hour. When lunch time came, the group that ate the whole meal in one sitting ate more at lunchtime, while the group eating the smaller segments each hour showed increased appetite control.5 This study made sense to me because I often feel very hungry at meal times and do tend to eat more than my husband who snacks between meals.
Healthy Snack Tips
So, my takeaways from all the research? It matters what you eat, it matters how many calories you eat and it matters when you eat. If you like to snack between meals, but want to do it the right way, follow these healthy snack tips if you want to maintain or lose weight.
Tip #1: Do not consume more calories during the day as a result of snacking. This means that if you normally eat 1800 calories during the day, you should still eat 1800 calories during the day when adding calories from snacks. You should eat fewer calories at your regular meals as a result of snacking. If you have a 100 calorie snack two times a day, you should eat 200 calories less during meals throughout the day so your total calorie intake stays the same.
Be deliberate in snack choices. How? Plan your snacks just as you plan your meals. Decide what food you will eat for snacks and when you will eat your snack. Prepare snacks ahead of time, just as you would prepare a sack lunch. Wash fruits and vegetables or portion out your hummus or yogurt ahead of time, so you are prepared for your snack.
Tip #3: Choose whole food snacks such as fruits, vegetables or whole grain. (Low-fat dairy is also recommended if you are not vegan). Add some protein to the snack to keep carbohydrates, proteins and fats in balance. Use your snack as an opportunity to eat something usually missing in your diet, such as vegetables or fruits.
Tip #4: Avoid processed or packaged foods and sugary drinks (including juice). These foods are often high in fat, sugar, sodium and preservatives and low on nutritional value. Some may not have sufficient protein to keep you satiated until your next meal.
Tip #5: Choose snacks that are approximately 100-150 calories. Deciding the calorie count of your snack determines your portion size. This helps you be deliberate in your snack. Your snack is never as big as a meal. When you know how many calories your snack is, it is easier to ensure your meals have that many fewer calories.
Tip #6: Eat snacks on a schedule, just as you do your meals. Our bodies thrive on schedules and with consistency, you will become accustomed to eating at certain times with appropriate calorie portions.
Tip #7: Eat your snacks slowly, just as you should your meals. We have heard it before. Eating slowly helps with satiety (feeling full). Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that people who ate slowly not only consumed less calories, but satiety was higher when they were finished eating than the people who ate quickly and consumed more calories.6
Tip #8: Do not eat within three or four hours of bedtime. People who snack close to bedtime often eat more calories than their snacks earlier in the day. Eating without increasing activity (as most people wind down for the evening), can lead to weight gain as the body stores these extra calories as fat.
Tip #9: Drink water with your snack. And drink water continuously throughout the day. If you are dieting, drink 1 to 2 cups before eating main meals. Research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that dieters who drink water before meals lost more weight than dieters who did not drink water before meals.7
My personal trainer pal may not have expressed the correct arguments for snacking, but I credit him with motivating me to learn the science behind snacking and to develop these healthy snack tips. Now, I’m off to try my own healthy snacking experiment.
Of all the healthy snack tips, eating small amounts of nutritious food is the most important. Try these healthy snack recipes (Smoked Paprika Hummus, Roasted Pumpkin Seeds, Chunky Applesauce) to stay on your fitness goal track.
What are your healthy snack ideas? Comment below and let me know.