There are mixed opinions about snacking.
Some believe that it’s healthy, while others think it can harm you and make you gain weight.
Here is a detailed look at snacking and how it affects your health.
What is snacking and why do people snack?
Snacking is when you consume food or beverages between your regular main meals.
The term “snack foods” is often used to refer to processed, high-calorie items like chips and cookies.
However, snacking simply means eating or drinking something between meals, regardless of whether the food is healthy.
Hunger is the main motivation behind snacking, but factors like location, social environment, time of day, and food availability contribute as well.
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.
Summary: Snacking refers to eating or drinking outside of regular main meals. Reasons for snacking include hunger, food availability, and environmental and social cues.
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 on 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.
Yet, in one study, active young men who ate a high-protein or high-carb snack before bed experienced a significant increase in the metabolic rate the following morning.
Summary: Snacking every few hours is often believed to increase metabolism. However, most studies show that eating frequency has little or no effect on metabolism.
How snacking affects appetite and weight
Studies on snacking’s effects on appetite and weight have provided mixed results.
Effects on appetite
How snacking affects appetite and food intake isn’t universally agreed upon.
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.
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.
In another controlled study, lean men ate either three high-protein, high-fat, or high-carb snacks for six days.
Their hunger levels and total calorie intakes didn’t change compared with the days on which they ate no snacks, indicating that the snacks had a neutral effect.
However, studies have also shown that snacking can help reduce hunger.
In one study, men eating a high-protein, high-fiber snack bar 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.
Another study in 44 women with obesity or excess weight noted that a bedtime snack high in protein or carbs led to decreased hunger and greater feelings of fullness the next morning. However, insulin levels were also higher.
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Based on these varied results, it appears that snacking’s effect on appetite depends on the individual and the type of snack consumed.
Effects on weight
Most research indicates that snacking between meals does not affect weight.
Still, a few studies suggest that eating protein-rich, high-fiber snacks can help you lose weight.
For example, a study of 17 people with diabetes reported that munching on snacks high in protein and slow-digesting carbs resulted in an average weight loss of 2.2 pounds (1 kg) within 4 weeks.
On the other hand, some studies on people with obesity or normal weight found that snacking may lead to slower weight loss or even weight gain.
In one study, 36 lean men increased their calorie intake by 40% by consuming excess calories as snacks between meals. They experienced a significant increase in liver and belly fat.
Some research suggests that the timing of snacks may affect weight changes.
A study of 11 lean women revealed that consuming a 190-calorie snack at 11:00 in the night reduced the amount of fat they burned significantly more than eating the same snack at 10:00 in the morning.
The mixed results suggest that weight responses to snacking probably vary by individual and time of day.
Summary: Mixed study results imply that weight and appetite responses to snacking vary by individual, as well as the time of day.
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.
A study on 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.
Other studies have reported no difference in blood sugar levels when the same amount of food was consumed as meals or meals plus snacks.
Of course, the type of snack and amount consumed are the main factors that affect blood sugar levels.
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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 may improve blood sugar control.
In a study of 20 healthy men, eating a high-protein, lower-carb dairy snack led to lower blood sugar levels before the next meal, compared with higher-carb dairy snacks or orange juice.
Summary: It’s unnecessary to snack to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Eating high-protein or high-fiber snacks raises blood sugar levels less than consuming high-carb snacks.
Can prevent ravenous hunger
Snacking may not be good for everyone, but it can help some people avoid becoming ravenously hungry.
When you go too long without eating, you may become so hungry that you end up eating many more calories than you need.
Snacking can help keep your hunger levels on an even keel, especially on days when your meals are spaced further apart.
However, it’s important to make healthy snack choices.
Summary: Eating a snack is better than letting yourself become ravenously hungry. This can lead to poor food choices and excess calorie intake.
Tips for healthy snacking
To get the most out of your snacks, follow these guidelines:
- Amount to eat. In general, it’s best to eat snacks that provide about 200 calories and at least 10 grams of protein to help you stay full until your next meal.
- Frequency. Your number of snacks varies based on your activity level and meal size. If you’re very active, you may prefer 2–3 snacks per day, while a more sedentary person may do best with 1 or no snacks.
- Portability. Keep portable snacks with you when you’re out doing errands or traveling in case hunger strikes.
- Snacks to avoid. Processed, high-sugar snacks may give you a brief jolt of energy, but you’ll probably feel hungrier an hour or two later.
Summary: When snacking, be sure to eat the right types and amounts of food to reduce hunger and prevent overeating later on.
Healthy snacks to eat
Though many packaged snacks and bars are available, choosing nourishing whole foods is best.
It’s a good idea to include a protein source in your snack.
For example, both cottage cheese and hard-boiled eggs have been shown to keep you full for hours.
Furthermore, high-fiber snacks like almonds and peanuts may reduce your appetite and the amount of food you eat at the next meal.
Here are a few other healthy snack ideas:
- string cheese
- fresh vegetable slices
- sunflower seeds
- cottage cheese with fruit
Summary: Choosing healthy snacks that are high in protein and fiber helps reduce hunger and keeps you full for several hours.
Snacking can be good in some cases, such as for preventing hunger in people who tend to overeat when going too long without food.
However, others may do better eating three or fewer meals per day.
In the end, it’s a personal choice. If you’re going to snack, make sure to choose healthy foods that keep you full and satisfied.