Conventional wisdom, along with a fair number of scientific studies, holds that snacking between meals can lead to excess body weight. At the very least, many people believe that unplanned snacking is a slippery slope: When you don’t just eat at designated times, it may be tempting to ignore other elements of a meal plan. Some evidence has shown, however, that eating five or six small meals throughout the day may be healthier than eating three larger ones. Does this mean that snacking, if it’s done right, might be healthy?
A new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shakes up many negative assumptions about snacking. In this study, researchers examined a previously conducted survey that had asked 5,811 teens (ages 12–18) to recall their diet over the past 24 hours, among other questions. Participants had also had various body measurements taken, including weight, height, and waist circumference. The researchers found that teens who snacked more often were less likely to be overweight: Among those who did not snack, 39% were overweight or obese, while among those who had two, three, or four or more snacks in a day, 30%, 28%, and 22% were overweight or obese, respectively. Abdominal obesity, as indicated by a waist circumference at or above the 90th percentile for their height, was highest in the snack-free group at 24% and lowest in the four-or-more-snacks group at 11%.
Intuitively, of course, snacking might reduce hunger and result in less overall calorie consumption. But a number of other factors could have led to the above results instead, and the researchers tried to factor into their analysis, according to a Reuters article. They controlled for self-reported amount of exercise (since active people may have snacked more), time spent watching TV or at the computer (to account for potentially the opposite effect), race/ethnicity, and family income. Even after these adjustments, however, snacking was associated with a lower rate of overweight and obesity. The researchers also controlled for whether participants said they were trying to lose weight, since this might logically lead to less snacking among overweight people. Again, though, snacking was still associated with less overweight and obesity after the adjustment.
One possible reason why this study conflicts with other studies on snacking and weight is that it did not count soda and other sugary beverages as snacks. A recent study that found an increase in snacking among adults in the United States over the last 30 years, for example, did count such beverages as snacks, and many people believe that such a general increase in caloric intake outside of meals helps explain the rise in overweight and obesity over this time period. The absence of a link between excess weight and snacking in the latest study, however, when sugary drinks were not counted as snacks, indicates that what someone snacks on may be more important that just how many calories are consumed outside of meals. This idea is supported by some research, such as a 2007 study that found an association between nut consumption and healthy weight loss in adults. But the latest study may fail to take certain factors into account, such as the possibility that being overweight causes people to snack less even if they are not consciously trying to lose weight — or that naturally thin people might simply have a faster metabolism that makes them get hungry more often.
What do you think — has snacking helped you gain, lose, or maintain your weight? Are snacks a part of your meal plan? Have you found that certain snacks help you feel full for longer? Is it correct to call a sugary beverage a “snack” when looking at the effects of snacking? Leave a comment below!