The Diet Myth that Even the Experts Believe

Can I get personal with you for a minute?  I love to eat.  That's why I usually eat all day long - I guess you could call me a 'grazer'.  My snacking habit has always been totally justified in my mind - I've been an 'athlete' of some fashion for the past 18 years, and I've been pregnant and/or breast feeding for nearly 5 years continuously.  I also usually snack on healthy food.  Further, I've always been able to lose weight while still snacking.  And, finally, nutrition 'experts' often recommend snacking!  Need any evidence?

It turns out, I'm not alone with my snacking habit.  Americans have become snack-o-holics.  Americans now snack twice as often as in the 1970s, and consume nearly 1/4 of their energy from snacks (1).  They now eat for at least a 15 hour window, with most of their calories consumed after 6:00 PM (2). 

In fact, snacking is so big that you can subscribe to receive automatic, custom-picked snacks delivered right to your door! 

So, what's the problem?  Well....I'll share a personal experience with you.  The final year of my dietetics program was pretty crazy and I gained a couple (OK, five) pounds.  Yes, I see the irony there.  After graduation I endeavored to lose them with my traditional "5-6 small meals/day" approach.  The results?  Nothing!  No progress.  Hmmmm.....this got me thinking about the evidence in support of intermittent fasting for weight loss.  Studies have shown that fasting periods can be at least as effective for weight loss as a reduced-calorie diet (3). Fortunately, you don't have to go all day without eating.  Just a 12-hour fast has been shown to be effective (4).  This basically just means you don't eat between dinner and breakfast.  In fact, longer periods of fasting can actually be harmful, especially for women (5).

So, could snacking actually not be a great idea?  It turns out, there's quite a bit of evidence that it's not:

  • Obesity is linked to frequent snacking, and snacking increases total energy intake (6, 7
  • The idea that frequent eating increases metabolism and fat loss has been proved false (8, 9)
  • Frequent eating causes elevated blood glucose levels throughout the day (10)
  • Lower meal frequency improves appetite control and satiety (11)

However, other studies have shown weight loss and metabolic benefits with snacking (12).  In total, the research is mixed on the benefits of snacking.  One reason for this fact is that the quality of snacks contributes to their effect (12).  In other words, planning to eat something healthy between meals is usually fine.  Poor planning, then bingeing on any junk sitting around the office/house is another story. 

Now we're faced with a decision - to snack or not?  When faced with a conflict like this I always find it helpful to view it through an 'ancestral lens'.  That just means I consider the way humans have lived and eaten for the vast majority of our existence.  It turns out that hunter/gatherers likely weren't consistently eating 5 to 6 times per day every day.  They experienced more of a 'feast or famine' situation, with periods of surplus food (a successful hunt), and other periods of lack (seeking food) (13).  This implies that an ancestral approach is to eat less snacks.

So, back to my personal dilemma.  I tried my own version of fasting which, literally, just meant not eating between meals, or after dinner.  The exception is after a workout.  Don't laugh - this alone was really hard for me (read: HANGRY).  Until it wasn't.....after a couple of weeks.  My appetite adjusted and, surprisingly, so did those stubborn 5 pounds - they disappeared. 

Now, I'm not saying that snacking is never appropriate.  If you work out at a moderate to high intensity, if you are pregnant or breast feeding (don't judge - my 'baby' is almost weaned and OLD/19 months), if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or a glycogen storage disease, or if you are a child/adolescent, you absolutely should snack!

However, I DO think snacking culture has gotten out of control.  Unfortunately, the deluge of 'health advice' encouraging everyone to snack isn't helping.  

What about you?  Have you bought into the idea that you should snack?  Maybe you snack and it works great for you - that's fine!  However, if you've been struggling with weight loss, or are looking to improve your metabolic health, consider kicking that snack habit.  Make sure you get a full, healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner each day and leave it at that.  A few tips:

  • Fix WHAT you eat first: I DO recommend snacks in most of my meal plans.  This is because switching from a standard American diet to an ancestral diet is change enough.  However, if you already have your diet dialed in and are struggling to meet your goals, you may want to analyze your snacking habit.
  • Control hunger between meals by following an ancestral template when you eat.  Refined carbohydrates and lack of healthy fats causes blood sugar to spike and fall - leaving you starving.
  • Practice mindful eating during meals - eat slowly and enjoy your food (yes I have small children and NO I don't always accomplish this!)
  • Don't take skipping snacks a license to go crazy at meals.
  • If you do snack, make sure it's planned and appropriate, i.e. a post-workout recovery meal.

Try it for four weeks, or take the 4-Week Real Food Challenge if you need support.  I'd love to hear how it goes.  Good luck!