By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
I often hear people say they are trying to give up snacking, like it is some sort of bad hobby. Yet eating small, frequent meals has been praised by many to help the body’s metabolism.
So which way is best? Well, it depends. And I’ll show you why.
The snacking definition problem
In general, snacking is defined as eating something in between regular meal times — breakfast, lunch and dinner. The problem is that this can look differently depending on how and what someone snacks on.
Someone who snacks on items like chips, crackers or cookies, eating out of habit throughout the day, is very different from someone eating more real-food type of snacks such as fruit, dairy, nuts and seeds, due to hunger. Because there is not a set definition for researchers (and lay people) to go by, it’s very hard to generalize snacking as something that is good or bad.
At the 2009 Experimental Biology meeting, the American Society of Nutrition hosted a symposium entitled “Eating Patterns and Energy Balance.” While the research presented showed that more frequent meals (6 times a day) versus the typical 3 meals might be beneficial for appetite control, it was said that more research was needed to make recommendations.
And when discussing snacking, researcher Didier Chapelot pointed to controlled studies showing that snacking leads to higher calorie intake and overeating. The reason for this is that most people don’t compensate by eating less food at the next meal.
Yet other research presented showed that the French, who eat an afternoon snack (called goiter), actually have decreased intake at dinner. It was hypothesized that when people eat in between meals driven by satiety (hunger) that such snacking doesn’t necessarily lead to excess calories consumed. Here was the takeaway according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Nutrition:
“Chapelot proposes a biologically based definition of a snack, which is eating during a period of satiety, rather than simply eating between meals. This biological definition supports the idea that eating at times other than breakfast, lunch, and dinner may not contribute to overeating and obesity provided one is hungry prior to eating and the eating episode results in a metabolic state that does not reduce fatty acid oxidation.”
It’s the question that needs to change
I don’t think the right question is whether or not to snack, but whether or not individuals are truly hungry between meals. For as long as I can remember, I have eaten 5 times a day. I’m always hungry about 3 hours after breakfast and then I get hungry about 4 hours after lunch and have some healthy nosh (fruit, nuts or dairy) to hold me over until the next meal.
So it comes down to not only what we snack on, but how we do it. Do you eat between meals? And if you do, are you trying to stop?