The notion behind eating smaller, more frequent meals is simple: spreading out one’s daily calories over the course of the day will help to regulate appetite, boost nutrient intake, improve glucose and insulin control and even help keep metabolism revved up — so the story goes. While others report snacking is used to satisfy cravings, pass the time or deal with unsettling emotions.
But it depends on what constitutes a snack.
In a snack-obsessed society where companies are coming up with endless new ways to package foods we can eat on-the-run, along with our current Instagram obsession with bliss balls and luscious smoothies, many snacks are in fact energy-dense, containing as many calories as a small meal. So, it is very important to keep in mind that portions matter — a lot.
How many meals?
According to research, three meals a day is a myth. People eat all the time!
The aim of the study was to determine whether restricting the timing of meals might help people lose weight. With the 156 people in this study, results showed more than half of the adults ate for 15 hours or longer every day, which meant that reducing the daily eating duration could contribute to weight loss.
It was a small study, however, compared to a well-known review paper published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetic, which looked at the scientific evidence for how eating frequency could affect weight and health. It showed eating more frequently did not boost the metabolism. Rather, it’s overall the amount you eat in the entire day (whether that three or six mini-meals) that counts. In other words, snacking works against people when they add the extra food on top of their normal daily intake, rather than adjusting portion sizes accordingly.
What about children?
Snacks provide an important contribution towards meeting children’s daily nutrient requirements due their fast metabolic rate and rapid rate of growth. What’s more, children’s appetites (and the portions they eat) are generally smaller than adults, which means eating every few hours is beneficial for keeping up their energy levels.
It is generally encouraged for children to choose high-calcium foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, along with fruit and vegetable and limit energy-dense snacks seen in common snack foods, like biscuits, cakes and pastries, crisps, confectionery and sugar-sweetened beverages.
What makes snacks healthy?
The key is to get the right mix of nutrients in each snack. Eating a snack high in refined carbs alone (eg: rice crackers, crisps) is not going to do much for you. Your blood sugar levels will soar, to only plummet back down again. Aim to mix a protein — rich food with a fibre — rich food. Examples include:
- Fresh fruit
- Nuts (small handful)
- Natural yoghurt (150 g) sweetened with fruit and cinnamon
- Fruit smoothie (small serving) — limit the ingredients or milk beverage
- Trail mix (mini box)
- Plain popcorn (1 cup)
- Two wholegrain crackers with hummus or cheese or avocado
- Vegetable sticks and protein-rich dip
There is no consensus regarding an ideal pattern. How regularly a person eats and whether they snack or not, is a matter of personal choice. If a current eating pattern is working to help shed weight, or stop weight gain, then there’s little reason to change eating frequency purely based on the latest fad-diet.
If you are a nibbler or can’t do without snacks between meals, than make sure you choose nutrient-dense snacks in small amounts.
Done right, snacking can help you avoid energy slumps, fill nutritional gaps in your diet and keep your appetite in check.