You can almost consider snacking to be an American pastime. As of 2015, a majority of Americans admit to snacking every single day, and half of us snack two or three times on the daily. Furthermore, a quarter of Millennials admit to snacking four or more times in one day. We can't help but ask whether this habit is helping us or hurting us in our long-term health goals.
Although snacking can hold us over until our next meal and prevent us from binge-eating, when it's done without any intention, it can just lead to calorie overload and an overly full stomach. We spoke to a few experts about the role snacking plays in our lives and what we can do to snack smarter.
Dr. Luiza Petre, board-certified cardiologist and weight-management specialist, told POPSUGAR, "Quite simply, to lose weight we need to take in fewer calories than our body needs. And even though weight loss means cutting calories, that doesn't mean you have to get rid of snacks." When you eat the right kind of snack — low-calorie, protein-filled — it "can be a secret weapon to fight excess pounds, while at the same time keeping your energy level up and giving you more opportunities to get in all your nutritional needs," Dr. Petre said.
Lisa Eberly Mastela, MPH, RD, agrees. "[Snacking] prevents you from ever feeling too hungry, so you avoid getting to that point of so hungry that you binge-eat unhealthy food," she told POPSUGAR. Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, and dietitian for Guiding Stars also added, "Deliberate, purposeful snacking that's used as a bridge between meals to sustain energy and control hunger is a very effective weight-loss tool."
However, the common denominator in all this is that your snacking is planned out and thoughtful. Dietitians agree that mindless snacking is exactly what leads to weight gain, so it all depends on how you control your own nosh habits.
"Grazing can be quite harmful, and when snacks are loaded with carbohydrates, the insulin swings and cravings go into high gear," Dr. Petre told POPSUGAR. "Snacking habits often add too many calories and too few nutrients to our diets." Eberly Mastela also reminded us that "snacking itself doesn't support weight loss," so in order to see results, you have to control it strategically.
Here are some tips for healthy snacking, straight from the experts:
- "When is the right time to snack? Four hours is about the maximum amount of time you should have between meals. If you go longer, you will be at risk of overeating, your blood sugar will drop, and your metabolism will slow down. Timing your snack about three hours after lunch and the same amount of time before dinner will do wonders for your body. Aiming to eat every three to four hours will improve your fat loss by preventing excess insulin, allowing leptin to work its magic on appetite control and metabolism, and by balancing the stress hormone cortisol." — Dr. Petre
- "Snack on fruits and veggies — always! Get to know your hunger cues and fullness cues. Eat all food, including snacks, slowly so that you can recognize when you're satisfied." — Eberly Mastela
- "We should avoid carb-only snacks because they don't sustain us and may actually leave us hungrier. Instead pair that carbohydrate with protein and/or fat, which helps you stay satiated or fuller longer." — Stowell
- "Pre-portion your snack so it's not bottomless." — Eberly Mastela
- "Summing it up, limit your snacks to one to two per day, ideally in the afternoon, to fewer than 100 calories based on proteins or natural carbohydrates." — Dr. Petre