Healthy eating: not all snacks are created equal

We're all clear that mindless snacking is bad news, but the researchers maintain that waiting too long between meals may also sabotage dieting efforts.

Snacking can be used as an effective weight-loss tool so long as you monitor what you eat, when you eat it and how much of it you consume.
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To snack or not to snack? A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association last December found that women who had a mid-morning snack lost less weight than those who didn't snack before lunch. The mid-morning snackers lost an average of seven per cent of their total body weight over a year, while those who ate a healthy breakfast but did not snack before lunch lost more than 11 per cent of their body weight.

These results would lead you to believe that snacking isn't a good idea if you want to lose weight, but it's not quite as simple as that. "We think this finding may not relate necessarily to the time of day one snacks, but rather to the short interval between breakfast and lunch," says Anne McTiernan, the author of the paper and a member of the Hutchinson Centre's public health sciences division and the director of its prevention centre. "Mid-morning snacking, therefore, might be a reflection of recreational or mindless eating habits, rather than eating to satisfy true hunger."

OK, so we're all clear that mindless snacking is bad news, but the researchers maintain that waiting too long between meals may also sabotage dieting efforts. "Our study suggests that snacking may actually help with weight loss if not done too closely to another meal, particularly if the snacks are healthy foods that can help you feel full without adding too many calories," says McTiernan.

Right now you're probably planning on ditching your mid-morning snack, while closely guarding your mid-afternoon snack, but read this first: when French researchers studied the effect of snacking a few hours after lunch, they concluded that when people who aren't hungry eat a snack, they don't tend to reduce the number of calories they eat at dinner. The researchers believe this is evidence that snacking can play a role in obesity. The researcher Didier Chapelot, of the University of Paris, says that people who eat three times are day are not generally hungry until five to seven hours after lunch.

So what now? When exactly is snacking a good thing? Research supports the idea that it's important to eat regularly; it just depends how you define "regular". Indeed, a study by the University of Minnesota in 2005 found that the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) provides a satiety signal and, therefore, when TEF is reduced in people who are eating irregularly, an increase in body weight may result. "Snacking must be done no sooner than three hours after a main meal, and no less than three hours before the next main meal. So, main meals should have a six-hour gap, and in the middle of that period a snack can be taken. For example, breakfast at 8am, snack at 11am and lunch at 2pm. This sort of timing helps regulate both the metabolism and appetite," says Chirine Watfa, the chief dietician at the Health Factory in Dubai (www.healthfactory.com).

This helps to explain that if you snack at the right time, it can be a great dieting aid, especially if you get your actual snacks right. "If snacking every few hours is not working for you, then you've got to take a closer look at the choices you are making," advises Rashi Chowdhary, a nutrition expert from Dubai (www.rashichowdhary.com). "If you are a smart snacker, it will only work in your favour for weight loss. When we don't eat for a long time, our sugar levels dip and we feel extremely hungry. No one wants to cook up a healthy salad with some grilled meat when they are starving. We run towards refined carbohydrates like cookies, bread, rice and pasta, and land up eating way too much, too fast."

Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy snacks options. "Foods that have complex carbohydrates, good quality protein and that are low in fat are ideal snacking choices," says Watfa. "Some ideal examples include fruits like apples, berries and melons, sliced carrots, a small handful of nuts, whole grain crackers or low fat yogurts."

The key is to be prepared. "Shop for appropriate foods and make sure you have healthy snacks at hand at work, at home and in your bag," advises Kathleen Farren, a nutritional therapist at Zest4Life in Dubai (www.zest4life.eu).

It can be easy to get your bad and good snacks in a muddle. "Snacking on fat-free or sugar-free products is the most common mistake," says Chowdhary. "Processed 'healthy' junk is loaded with chemicals our liver cannot process efficiently."

While it makes sense not to eat a calorie-laden snack, especially if you're like the French guys who nosh down all their dinners regardless, Chowdhary believes counting calories is a redundant concept. "What really matters is the source of the calories," explains Chowdhary. "For example, eight to 10 almonds and three to four biscuits are both around 100 calories. But the effect of 100 calories from almonds is far more beneficial than biscuits. The almonds give you a steady rise in glucose and are packed full of nutrients, versus biscuits which raise your sugar levels too quickly and only offer trans fats and refined sugar your body cannot process."

So, most of the research points to these simple facts summed up neatly by Watfa: "Snacking could be used as an effective tool for weight loss as long as one monitors what they eat, when they eat and how much they eat. It helps reduce hunger pangs, keeps one energised and adds beneficial nutrients to the day's diet."

• "Stick to healthy snacks like a slice of wholegrain bread with peanut butter; wholewheat crackers with cheese; yogurt with fresh fruit; and muesli," says Rashi Chowdhary, a nutrition expert.

• "Listen to the body for hunger cues and eat in between meals when hungry," says Chirine Watfa, a dietician.

• "Snack more often when you are active, and less often when you are less active. If you are having an inactive day, opt for snacks like cheese with olives, plain yogurt and cinnamon, celery or cucumbers with peanut butter, or boiled eggs with salt and pepper," says Chowdhary.

• "Load your fridge with healthy snacks so you'll always have nutritious snack alternatives late at night," advises Watfa.

• "Don't rely on sugary granola bars as your back-up snacks. They will only make you more sluggish and open your appetite out for more hunger," warns Chowdhary.

• "Drink plenty of water to prevent false hunger signals," says Watfa.