To Snack or Not To Snack
Do you like to snack between meals? (I do😊.) Or perhaps you’re more of an all-day nibbler? Will snacking help you to stay healthy and boost your energy? Control your appetite and keep your weight in check? Are you looking for some more healthy options?
Before talking about what and when to snack, let’s start by answering the basic question, “To snack or not to snack?”
To Snack or Not to Snack?
For many of us, snacking is fun. Especially when get to enjoy foods you don’t usually eat at meals. And, with food all around us – at home, on the road, in the office – it’s easy and sociably acceptable. But is snacking a good move for you?
While you may have heard that everyone should eat every three hours (three meals and three snacks), research doesn’t support this recommendation. In other words, snacking isn’t for everyone.
Sure, snacking is a wise move if you’re doing it to keep up your energy between meals. But, only if your meals are relatively small, the time between meals is long, or when you’re burning a lot of calories due to an active lifestyle. In addition, adding a snack can also help if you’re one of those people who overeat when they get overly hungry.
As a PhD nutritionist focused on energy management, I want to remind you that food is fuel. It’s what the body and brain use to stay alive and thrive.
But, for many people, snacking isn’t about fuel. They’re snacking because it’s fun and tasty. It is an unconscious activity to be social, quell boredom, calm the nerves, occupy your hands, celebrate an occasion, and more. If that’s why you snack, you might want to reconsider snacking - especially if your goals are to stay healthy and energized and at a normal weight.
BTW I believe snacks can be BOTH fuel – and fun and tasty. I’ll talk more about that later.
Who Should Snack?
Snacks are recommended for anyone who can’t eat enough at their meals – or doesn’t like to eat large meals. This includes four groups of individuals.
Infants and young children
Pediatric dietitians recommend that babies and young children be offered between each of their three meals. That’s because they often don’t (or can’t) eat enough calories at their meals to meet their requirement for growth.
In addition, eating often helps these kids maintain a normal glucose (blood sugar) level throughout the day. This is critical because the brain uses about 25% of all the calories we eat in the form of glucose. And, while we can store an unlimited amount of body fat for fuel on our bodies, glucose is only stored in the liver. Since young children have small livers, they can only store a small amount of glucose. Therefore, eating often is critical for babies and small children who are experiencing rapid growth.
Can't Eat Enough at Meals
Snacking is also recommended for anyone else who can’t get enough to eat at mealtime. This might include older individuals or someone with a medical condition who’s having a hard time eating. I’m also thinking of a friend of mine that eats so slow that everyone is leaving the restaurant before she can finish her meal.
Athletes and other active people often perform better with snacking in addition to three meals. It’s not because they eat less than others at meals, but because their calorie needs are higher than most people and simply need more calories.
Keeps Hunger in Check
The final group of people who should probably add snacks between meals are those individuals who simply feel better when they’re eating smaller amounts of food at one time. Maybe large meals make them feel sleepy – and they’re more energized when eating often throughout the day. Or maybe they find that snacking prevents them from overeating at mealtime.
I’m one of those people. I started strategically snacking between meals as part of my recovery from eating disorders (anorexia, then bulimia and binge eating). Snacking turned out to be a two-pronged solution for my overeating.
When I had a planned snack, I wasn’t overly hungry at mealtime so it was easier to not overeat. It also eased the pressure within me to eat more than my body needed because I was giving myself permission to eat shortly after. I would actually repeat to myself, “It’s ok, I can have a snack in a few hours.”
Do you fit into one of those four categories of individuals that likely will be healthier and more energized when they include snacks into their day? If not, you might fall into one of the groups I’ll talk about in the next section.
Who Probably Shouldn’t Snack?
In general, overweight and inactive individuals might want to avoid snacking and just stick to three meals a day.
Those Eating One or Two Meals a Day
For all-day energy, I believe eating three meals a day is a must. Not one. Not two. Three meals a day provides you with a constant source of fuel.
In addition, people who eat three meals a day (versus one or two) tend to be leaner and have healthier levels of blood glucose and blood cholesterol. It makes sense, of course, because with three smaller meals (instead of one very large one), the body has to breakdown and metabolize a smaller amount of food at one time. There’s no overloading the system.
When I’m counseling people, I often discover that many people tend to eat fewer than three meals a day. When I ask why, they will share that they’re too busy to eat during the day or that they’re just not hungry. Sometimes it’s intentional. This happens when they are intentionally prolonging their eating time (common with the followers of intermittent fasting) so they will “burn more body fat.” I wish that were true.
What most often happens, after eating very little during the day, is that they are so hungry that they eat a large evening meal, followed by non-stop eating until bedtime. All that food at one time can pack on the pounds – more than what can be solved by simply skipping breakfast the following day. Have you tried this, too? And, did it work?
Sometimes they share that their eating is “out of control” and that they have an “eating problem” (referring to a psychological issue like I had. Is that you?
My response is often the same, “Perhaps. But more likely it’s a physiological issue.” After anyone goes too long without eating enough food for fuel, the body responds by increasing hunger. That’s a normal, healthy response.
To get that hunger in check (so you’re not constantly thinking about food), instead of focusing on adding more snacks to your day, try including a more substantial breakfast and lunch to your day.
So that’s one group of individuals that won’t necessarily benefit from simply adding snacks to their diet – people who eat fewer than three meals a day.
People Who Like Bigger Meals
Another group of people are those that simply prefer to eat generous sized meals. And, let’s face it, if you’re already getting the calories you need (or more), then you can’t afford the additional calories of a snack. That’s because, in order to balance your intake, you’d need to eat smaller meals if you want to add snacks.
Low Calorie Needs
A third group of people who don’t need to snack are those that don’t have a high calorie need. For example, a very small, inactive woman may only require 1200 calories a day. While you could divide that into three tiny meals (300 calories each) and three snacks containing 100 calories each, most people find these small meals/snacks aren’t enough to satisfy them. It’s more practical to skip the snacks and eat more reasonably sized meals.
And, finally, if you have a hard time stopping when you start eating, it’s likely best to limit the number of times you’re eating each day.
Do you belong to the “clean plate club?” You do if you just can’t stop eating until you’ve finished everything on your plate. Do you finish what your kids didn’t eat, too? Or what’s left in the baking dish, because “it’s just not enough to put away?”
If you’re on the “See-food” diet (when you see it, you eat it), it’s best to limit your food exposures to the three meals a day. It’s a lot easier to limit how much you eat three times a day, rather than dealing with that six times a day.
While most everyone eats a bit more than what is needed to satisfy their hunger on occasion, if you’re overeating at EVERY food occasion, please find some help. You don’t need to struggle alone; you deserve to feel in control. I can help – and you might need to find a therapist, too.
There's Nothing Magical About Snacking
While three meals a day is recommended for all, snacking isn’t for everyone. Snacks are great for infants, young children, athletes and those who are very active. It also works well for people who can’t eat enough at each meal. Or for those who find that they simply feel better, more energized and less sluggish, when they eat light, eat often.
But, snacking is not recommended for those who aren’t very active and, therefore, don’t burn a lot of calories. And, since snacks increase the number of exposures to food each day, it’s wise for those who tend to overeat to avoid them. Same thing goes for people who just simply prefer to eat three solid meals a day.
There’s no magic in snacking. As an energy expert, I don’t believe that snacking – or eating every three hours alone will magically help you to feel more energized.
Start with eating three meals a day, so that you’re not eating all your calories at one time. And, then add snacks between meals if you’re active and burning a lot of calories or if snacking helps you to keep your hunger in check at meal time.
How many snacks should I eat a day? Is there a best time of the day to snack? Check out this blog.
What are the best healthy snacks? Read the blog HERE.
What about energy bars? Do they hold up to their claim? What are the best ones out there? Read more HERE.
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