What Science Says About Snacking

While some people think “snacking will make me fat”, others believe “snacking is necessary for a fast metabolism”. From a medical perspective, both are false. The reasons people snack vary tremendously: to up nutrient intake, to relieve hunger, to satisfy cravings, or to cope with stressful situations.

It’s not only what we eat or don’t eat, but how we eat and when we eat. It’s important to listen to our bodies and be able to identify when you are physically hungry or when you are emotionally hungry. When we snack and what we snack on should be a conscious decision.

Food is our fuel, let’s make that clear. In the past 50-60 years, we have drastically changed what our eating habits look like. Sugar is now the main ingredient in most of the foods we call snacks, which sadly has no nutritional benefit. For millions of years, this was not the case. Our bodies received two main things from food: energy and nutrients.

Energy can be provided through carbs or fat. Nutrition, essential amino acids, and prohormones like cholesterol come from proteins and fats. To clarify, snacking won’t make you gain weight if you choose the right food sources. Fat and carbs will need to be burned and the energy utilized, so protein should be the go-to nutrient when it comes to snacks (generally speaking) at any moment of the day.

The way we prioritize macronutrients can make all the difference. For example, according to a 2014 Nielsen report, “41% of North American respondents ate snacks instead of dinner at least once in the previous 30 days”. The report documented that the favorite snacks in North America are chips, chocolate, and cheese. This is extremely worrisome. Chips or chocolate for dinner is not a smart way to eat. If you stay under your calories, you probably won’t gain weight. However, too much of this pattern will make you gain fat and lose muscle…unhealthy!

I recommend snacking between meals to relieve hunger or to satisfy cravings with foods higher in protein and lower in sugars. Americans eat roughly 570 calories more per day than they did in the 1970s, which includes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. We have to give our bodies nutrients that replenish us without requiring immediate energy utilization. Spanish researchers found that people who identified themselves as usual snackers were most likely to gain significant weight during the study’s 4½ year follow-up period. Plus, they were nearly 70 percent more likely to become obese. The interesting part is that less than 5% of the individuals studied prioritized protein when choosing a snack.

It is a personal decision whether the snacks we choose to boost our diet quality or lead to an unhealthy calorie surplus. A study of 233 adults in a worksite wellness program found that total snacking calories and frequency of snacking were unrelated to diet quality or BMI. However, the choice of snack foods affected both. Those who prioritized calories from sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages had poor diet quality with lower nutrient intake and higher BMI…not shocking after all we have said.

At the end of the day, the number of snacks or meals you have is not the most important factor. The calories, quality, and quantity of those snacks is what will determine the benefit you receive. It is very simple to talk about “watching your BMI” but there is a lot to process from this information. Higher BMI leads to obesity, increasing your chances of insulin resistance, and placing you at a higher risk for metabolic dysfunction like diabetes mellitus type 2. By 2025, we expect that 1 in every 5 adults in The United States will suffer from diabetes, which is a scary number! Make good decisions and don’t be a part of this statistic.

I want to leave you with this message: The best snacking pattern is the one that fits best into your lifestyle. The quality of nutrients and ingredients of those snacks is what matters most. Make the right choices and live a happy, healthy life!