Does snacking help weight loss? The answer is: It depends. Healthy snacks can aid weight loss whereas junky snacks can prevent weight loss.
Many people snack at least once during the course of a day, and there are several reasons why. The most common scenario is that our stomachs start growling a few hours after our last meal. Another might be a dip an energy levels that a small bite can remedy. Or maybe we just look forward to the taste of certain snack foods.
Market research in the U.S. shows the most common snack choices are:
• ice cream
• soft drinks
• nuts and seeds
Snacks have been associated with both weight gain and maintaining weight, as well as with a lower or higher diet quality.
Although snacks can be a regular and important part of a healthy diet, they can also lead to health problems.
What differentiates the two scenarios is one’s snacking behavior: what you snack on, why you snack, frequency of snacking, and how snacks fit into your overall eating plan.
Why and how Americans snack
Research has found various motivations for snacking: hunger, social/food culture, distracted eating, boredom, indulgence, and food insecurity. Along with the ubiquity of snacks in our food environment, marketing may also play a role.
The food and beverage industry spends almost $14 billion per year on advertising in the US, more than 80% of which promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and other unhealthy snacks.
• Some studies found that snacking not caused by hunger was associated with a higher overall calorie intake.
• Emotional eaters and those under psychological stress have been found to eat more energy-dense snacks, especially those higher in sugar and fat.
The 2020 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council revealed several insights into how Americans snack.
• About a quarter of Americans surveyed said they snacked multiple times a day, and one-third snacked at least once daily. The most popular reasons for snacking were hunger or thirst, to be eaten as a sweet or salty treat, and because snack foods were easily available.
• Forty percent said they at least occasionally replaced meals by snacking (lunch being the meal most often replaced) and 25% sometimes skipped meals entirely.
• During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people under the age of 35 and parents with children under 18 years have reported snacking more than usual.
In children, snacking makes up about 27% of their daily calorie intake and there has been a substantial increase in snacking habits over the past few decades.
American children tend to consume snacks that are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, which is concerning when more than 30% of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that children do not obtain enough calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and potassium, but have high intakes of calories, carbohydrates, and sodium.
Snacks such as low-sugar yogurt, fresh fruit, raw vegetables, and nuts can help provide these needed nutrients in young children and preadolescents while controlling excess calories.
Does Snacking Help Weight Loss?
There are pros and cons to snacking.
Research has attempted to see if snacking has a positive or negative impact on nutrition and health outcomes—but without a clear answer. This may be because of a lack of a common scientific definition of what is a snack.
Studies find that snacking recommendations from public health organizations worldwide generally advise limiting snacks that offer little nutrition but are high in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium; they find that snacks provide at least 10% of daily calories, with a frequency of eating about two snacks per day.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 includes recommendations for nutrient-dense snacks, such as raw vegetables, fresh fruit, nuts, and plain yogurt.
• Provides a boost of energy if several hours pass between meals and blood glucose levels drop.
• Helps curb your appetite to prevent overeating at the next meal.
• Provides extra nutrients when choosing certain snacks like fresh fruit or nuts.
• Can help maintain adequate nutrition if one has a poor appetite but cannot eat full meals, such as due to an illness.
• Unwanted weight gain if portions or frequency of snacking is too much, adding excess calories.
• Too much snacking can reduce hunger at meal times or cause one to skip a meal entirely, which increases the risk of losing out on important nutrients.
• Regular intake of ultra-processed hyperpalatable snacks that contain added salt, sugar, and fats but that are low in nutrients and high in calories can increase a preference for these types of foods, leading to a change in eating behaviors and diet quality (e.g., a higher intake of hyperpalatable snacks along with a decreased intake of healthful foods).
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