There are mixed opinions about snacking. Some believe that it’s healthy and can boost your metabolism, while others think it can make you gain weight. So, I took a dive into the research to give you an open and honest look into the various aspects of how snacking affects your health.
Why do people snack?
Hunger is the main motivation behind snacking, but factors like location, emotion, social environment, time of day, and food availability may be a larger contributor. I don't know about you but I snack way more while watching a movie or at a social gathering.
In fact, people often snack when appetizing food is around — even when they’re not hungry.
In one study, when people with obesity or excess weight were asked why they chose unhealthy snacks, the most common response was temptation, followed by hunger and low energy levels.
In addition, both the desire to snack and snacking’s effects on health appear to be highly individualized. Factors that influence snacking include age and beliefs about whether this practice is healthy.
Does snacking boost your metabolism?
Though it’s been suggested that eating every few hours increases your metabolism, scientific evidence doesn’t support this.
Research indicates that meal frequency has no significant effect on how many calories you burn.
One study in people consuming an equal number of calories in either two or seven meals per day found no difference in calories burned.
In another study, people with obesity who followed a very-low-calorie diet for 3 weeks showed similar decreases in metabolic rate, regardless of whether they ate 800 calories as 1 or 5 meals per day.
Snacking every few hours is often believed to increase metabolism. However, most studies show that eating frequency has little or no effect on metabolism.
Effects on Blood Sugar
Though many people believe that it’s necessary to eat frequently to maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the day, this isn’t always the case.
In fact, a study in people with type 2 diabetes found that eating only two large meals per day resulted in lower fasting blood sugar levels, better insulin sensitivity, and greater weight loss than eating six times per day.
Of course, the type of snack and amount consumed are the main factors that affect blood sugar levels.
Lower-carb, higher-fiber snacks have consistently demonstrated a more favorable effect on blood sugar and insulin levels than high-carb snacks in people with and without diabetes.
In addition, snacks with a high protein content consistently demonstrate to improve blood sugar control and weight management.
Does snacking effects your appetite or weight?
How snacking affects appetite and food intake isn’t universally agreed upon. Studies on snacking’s effects on appetite and weight have provided mixed results.
One review reported that though snacks briefly satisfy hunger and promote feelings of fullness, their calories aren’t compensated for at the next meal. This results in an increased calorie intake for the day — which can lead to weight gain.
For example, in one study, men with excess weight who ate a 200-calorie snack 2 hours after breakfast ended up eating only 100 fewer calories at lunch. This means that their total calorie intake increased by about 100 calories. Although small, this can lead to gradual weight gain over time.
However, studies have also shown that snacking can help reduce hunger and aid in weight loss when the snacks are higher in certain nutrients like protein and fiber.
In one study, adults eating a high-protein, high-fiber snack had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and higher levels of the fullness hormone GLP-1. They also took in an average of 425 fewer calories per day.
Based on these varied results, it appears that snacking’s effect on appetite and weight depend on the type of nutrients in the snack consumed. Eating protein-rich, high-fiber snacks can help you lose weight while eating high-carb based snacks can lead to weight gain.
Building the Perfect Snack
The smartest and most nutritious snacks combine at least 2 of the 3 macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Combining two or more macronutrients, especially protein with fiber or protein with healthy fats, keep you more full for longer periods of time and help to maintain lower blood sugar levels. These two components have been linked to successful long term weight management and weight loss.
It's important to note that the purpose of a snack is to keep you satiated until your next meal. If you can hold off until you next meal, do it. Try to drink some sparkling water or water with squeezed lime/lemon to tide you over until your next meal, if possible.
Because snacks are not full-meals, the portion and size of your snack should be smaller. Here are two templates that you can use to build your snack:
Healthy Fat w Protein: 1 to 2 thumb sized portions of healthy fat and 1/2 palm portion of protein (10+g)
Fiber-Rich w Protein: 1/2 to 1 cupped handful of fiber-rich carbs and 1/2 palm portion of protein (10+g)
Plug & Play Examples:
1-2 hard-boiled Eggs (6g per egg)
1 stick lean jerky (~10g)
1/2 to 1 scoop protein powder w water or unsweetened almond milk (10-25g)
2 thumb sized portions of raw nuts and seeds (roughly a cupped handful)
1-2 spoons of unsalted nut butter like almond, cashew, sesame, or peanut butter
1-2 spoons hummus
1-2 unsalted rice cakes
1 piece low-glycemic whole fruit like apricots, orange, watermelon, nectarines, wild berries, kiwi, or an apple — avoid dried fruit which is often coated with sugar
Large handful of crunchy veggies like carrots, cucumbers, sweat peppers, or celery
Food marketing does a good job at touting health claims on their packaging.
"... 20% less sugar!"
"Natural & Fresh!"
"10% of you daily fiber!"
You're smarter than that. Be a conscious consumer and read the label. Here are some snacks that I would recommend avoiding:
MOST protein bars and granola bars are glorified candy bars with the amount of added sugars and preservatives in them. They are often made with poor quality ingredients and do a poor job at keeping you full for a long time.
MOST trail mixes tend to be calorie bombs because of the dried fruit, candy chunks, and salt that make it almost impossible to put down. I know I've been on the wrong end of starting down the barrel of an empty family sized bag of trail mix (and, yes, the M&M kind). Build a better trail mix by making these swaps.
MOST packaged snacks — like chips, pretzels, triscuits, baked treats, wheat thins — are ultra-processed, refined carbs providing empty calories with no nutritional worth or fiber to keep you full.
ALL sugary beverages that spike and crash your blood sugar levels leading to diabetes, weight gain, sugar dependency, and provide no nutritional value; diet or regular soda, sweetened iced tea, flavored coffee beverages, gatorade and sports drinks, etc.