In contrast with most diet trends that fizzle out after a few years, snacking isn’t going anywhere. These mini meals are more popular than ever. Just think of all the new subscription services available specifically to bring these eats to your doorstep. But because obesity is still a growing problem, you have to wonder whether or not eating between meals is a good strategy to manage weight.
Like most nutrition topics, snacking has its fair share of supporters as well as naysayers. Both sides have a good amount of evidence to support their position, so it’s worth taking a closer look.
Why eating snacks might backfire
One of the most common issues people run into when snacking is eating too much. Rather than acting as a little something to bridge the gap from lunch to dinner, it becomes a meal. Diet-friendly packaged foods make things worse, often encouraging snackers to eat more than they should. The Huffington Post shared findings from researchers in the Netherlands who found snacks labeled as “light” spurred people to eat 13% more. The results aren’t yet published, but there’s other research with similar findings. In 2006 the Journal of Marketing Research published a series of three studies that revealed snacks bearing “low-fat” labels encouraged consumers to eat significantly larger portions.
It’s also worth understanding why you snack in the first place. The obvious answer is it keeps hunger at bay, but many people have no problem putting away several hundred calories even when their stomachs aren’t growling. A study published in Eating Behaviors found that snacking without hunger largely contributes to overeating. If it becomes habit, you can easily add pounds to your frame.
What and when you chow down also matters. If you’re a late-night snacker, you might want to reconsider this choice. According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, snacking late at night may contribute to weight gain. We’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of specific snacks in a little bit, but the time itself may also be problematic. While scientists aren’t positive why late-night snacking is so often linked to weight gain, they do have some guesses. After one 2012 study involving mice, researchers hypothesized eating at times that fall outside of our usual cycle can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
The case for snacking
One shortcoming we see with research on the link between snacking and weight gain is the results rarely spell out exactly what participants were eating between meals. This makes a huge difference because noshing on doughnuts is going to be a lot more detrimental to any diet plan than choosing raw veggies with hummus. One 2015 study highlighted how much food choice makes a difference by following the diets of more than 200 subjects for a few years. At the end of the trial, the authors found those who snacked on desserts and sugary beverages had higher BMIs and poorer diets than those who reached for produce and other healthier choices.
Some research has even come out in favor of snacking to ward off weight gain. One analysis from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which included more than 5,000 adolescents, found those who snacked were less likely to be overweight.
Again, specific choices make a difference. Foods high in sugar and carbs don’t do much to fill you up, but protein, fat, and fiber do. Supplementing meals with such satiating foods can be a smart move. Research published in 2015 found adolescents who nibbled high-protein soy snacks between meals had improved satiety compared to those who ate high-fat snacks or skipped eating between meals completely. What’s more, they also benefited from better cognitive performance. While this particular case only involved 31 subjects, the results support what nutritionists have been saying for years.
What this means for you
Before you immediately grab something to munch between meals or prior to bed, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re actually hungry. The whole point of snacking is to quell hunger, so eating just to satisfy a sweet (or salty) tooth is never going to be part of a successful diet plan. Dr. Caroline Cederquist, a bariatric physician, told U.S. News & World Report, “Over the years, I have reviewed research that says that only the total caloric intake ingested over the day matters.” This means reaching for any snack to quiet a craving in the absence of hunger is just going to lead to overeating, which will contribute to weight gain.
If you truly find yourself feeling peckish between meals or late at night, it comes down to making smart choices. Think fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and protein. You can easily make something in your own kitchen or go for a nutritious packaged snack. Even basics like string cheese and a handful of nuts will do. Just make sure you’re sticking to a modest portion because even the healthiest of foods can undo your diet if you eat too much. In most cases something around 200 calories is just about right.
Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec