To Nibble or Not?

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Conventional wisdom holds that nibbling — taking small, unplanned portions of food between planned meals and snacks — is bad, that it can hinder blood glucose control and lead to extra calorie consumption and weight gain. Especially this time of year, many articles on preventing weight gain focus on ways to avoid or limit nibbling. But a recent study suggests that nibbling might not be as bad as its reputation suggests.

The study, published in the January 2012 edition of the journal Eating Behaviors, was conducted at two universities in eastern Norway and examined 58 women volunteers, ages 19–41. The average body-mass index (BMI) of the women was 22.8, representing a “healthy” weight (not underweight or overweight). According to an article on the study at MyHealthNewsDaily, women were asked to report how often they nibbled during the previous 28 days. Nine percent reported no nibbling during this period, while 5% reported nibbling every day. The largest group, 40%, reported nibbling on between 6 and 12 days. Based on this self-reporting and on weight and height measurements, researchers found no relationship between nibbling behavior and BMI, frequency of meal or snack consumption, or binge eating.

As critics of the study note in the MyHealthNewsDaily article, self-reporting is not necessarily a good measure of nibbling, as memories are not always reliable. It may even be the case that those who engage in the most nibbling do not realize how often they do it, thus reinforcing the behavior. But even if self-reporting were completely accurate, an observational study such as this one could not determine with certainty whether nibbling leads to weight gain. This is because the women who nibble the least might do so because they have experienced weight gain from nibbling in the past, while those who nibble the most might do so in part because they have found it has no effect on their weight. Overall, nibbling might still contribute to weight gain; only a study that forced some people to nibble while preventing the behavior in others could settle the question with scientific accuracy.

Another factor not accounted for in the study may, of course, be what foods people are nibbling. In the United States, foods that people nibble are often processed and high in refined carbohydrates. Food offerings and habits in Norway may be different enough from those in the US to make nibbling comparatively healthy. In any case, most experts agree that there is a big difference between nibbling on fruits and vegetables, or even unprocessed but high-calorie foods such as nuts, and nibbling on chips or cookies.

Do you nibble frequently? If so, do you try to limit your nibbling, or to have healthy foods around so that when you have the urge to nibble, you’ll reach for something unlikely to spike your blood glucose or lead to weight gain? Have you found that nibbling is helpful, perhaps by limiting severe hunger so that you don’t overeat or binge? Do you have any tips for dealing with the urge to nibble? Leave a comment below!

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