Snacking. It can contribute to up to 50% of your daily caloric intake. You’ve likely heard before that snacking is a must if you want to regulate your appetite and your weight. So is snacking healthier than eating only meals? What is the ideal eating frequency and what does this Dietitian recommend?
To explore the question “is snacking healthy?”, we must first answer a few other questions.
- What is healthy eating?
- What constitutes a snack?
- If you eat more frequently will it reduce your appetite and calorie intake?
- How often should should you eat?
Question #1: What is healthy eating?
Question #2: What is a snack?
There is no universal definition for what constitutes a snack, in compositionally or in size. So this explanation and recommendation is my own.
A snack should be thought of as a mini meal. When meal planning we tend to consider balance and nutrition more often than we do when selecting a snack. I encourage clients to think of snacks as mini meals which includes:
- Nutrient dense, whole foods
- At least two food groups
- A protein source
A simple example of a mini meals is just that, a snack can be a smaller portion of leftovers of last evenings meal: chicken or beans, potatoes, and broccoli. This is nutritious (based off of whole foods), is composed of foods from three food groups (grains and starches, fruit and vegetables, and meat and alternatives) and includes a protein source.
Snacks versus Treats.
It is important to distinguish the different between a treat and a snack.
The definition of a treat from the old Google machine:
- An event or item out of the ordinary
- Gives great pleasure
A treat is often disguised as a snack, borrowing the idea that a snack is a smaller version of something. “Snack-sized” products are popping up all over (read candy, cookies, chips) but since there aren’t any universals for what constitutes a snack or a meal portion – these companies are taking liberties to market their products.
So it’s easy to see how this line can be blurred. I encourage you to consider what kinds of foods you choose as snacks presently and consider wether it more closely resembles a mini meal or a treat. Choosing mini meals more often than treats is of course what I encourage. #captinobvious
Question #3: If you eat more frequently will it reduce your appetite and calorie intake?
Now, there are some factors to note when approaching this question and exploring the research on snacking on appetite and weight:
- There is no universal definition for what a meal or a snack is composed of, or for portion sizes; making it challenging to compare results across studies.
- Self reporting and recording food intake, in research is far from precise, there is a large risk of inaccuracies and self recording bias.
- The scales used to measure appetite and satiety have poor validity.
There is no clear answer to this question from the literature. As of right now, there is no known optimal frequency of eating for general good health or weight management (reference). A few small, short-term randomized controlled trials in normal and overweight adults have found no difference across a day in hunger ratings, caloric intake or appetite regulating hormones for higher versus lower eating frequencies (six versus three eating occasions/day) (reference) (reference). There are only a few longer trials and the results were mixed as to whether there is an effect on appetite or energy intakes (reference).
Question #4: How often should should you eat?
Eating a nutritious, whole food, protein rich snack between meals is appropriate* if you are genuinely hungry, (missed a meal, if you are breastfeeding, pregnant or if you are very active etc) but, snacking is not necessarily the golden ticket to eating less overall. Although the research says one thing, from my clinical experience, snacking does indeed help people manage their portions, and help them to make more nutritious choices later in the day.
My final recommendation: keep healthy snacks on hand for when true hunger strikes, that way the nutritious choice is the easy choice.
*If you have diabetes your snacking recommendations will depend on your medications, your blood sugar levels, and other factors and should be discussed with your Registered Dietitian or Doctor.