To Snack or Not to Snack, That is the Question

If you are over the age of 40, then you likely have a clear memory of hearing this advice growing up: “Cut down on in between meals snacks”

Well, somehow, over the past few decades that advice has changed to: “You should eat every couple hours, to keep your body working, it speeds up your metabolism.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that those two pieces of advice are polar opposites. This is a perfect example of what is known as “bro-science.” You know, the kind of advise you might overhear from some random dude at the gym, or from one of your boss’s friends at a dinner party. Unfortunately, in our country, this advise has made its way into the mainstream and is actually doled out by doctors and health professionals for the purpose of “speeding up your metabolism.”  They have even gone as far as to advise eating 6 meals per day, spreading them out to about every 2 hours.

The food industry has had no problem helping you to comply with this misguided mantra, as they have created an entire new genre of highly processed food items that are “snack sized” and ready, waiting for you as an impulse buy at every checkout counter in every grocery/convenient store in the free world.

Over the past few decades the influx of snack sized products have been positively dizzying. So called low-fat “protein bars”(which inevitably are loaded with sugar), nuts processed in partially hydrogenated oils, 100 calorie chips, cookies, candy bars, diet sodas and energy drinks have completely infiltrated our society. And we’ve been convinced that we are somehow doing our metabolisms a favor by supplementing our daily eating schedules with these high glycemic foods. How many of these convenient snack items in this picture are actually healthy choices? Well, with exception to water, the answer would be none. Though it is true that whenever we eat, our metabolisms do accelerate slightly, it’s not to any significant degree, not any more so than one would achieve by eating the standard “3 squares”over the course of a day, on average. Certainly not significantly enough to justify constantly being in feeding-mode.

So, at this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “So what?!  If it makes no difference, then, no harm, no foul, right?” Well, unfortunately, as it is with most things having to do with our bodies, it’s not that simple. Our bodies are complex hormonal mechanisms that are constantly reacting to what we eat. And even more importantly, NOT reacting when we don’t eat! Understand that eating heightens the glucose level in your blood, triggering the release of insulin. Insulin is the main trigger for fat storage. The insulin does its job and returns to a basal level after some time has passed. If you are constantly eating, and thus constantly spiking your glycogen levels, your body never gets a chance to return your insulin to its basal level. Over time, this constant daily influx of insulin can cause insulin resistance. Insulin resistance over time can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. You need to allow for some insulin downtime! Also, the quality of your diet tends to suffer substantially when you supplement your meals with snacks. Foods designed for a long shelf life are highly processed and tend to be very high in refined carbohydrates. You need to give your body a chance to get its energy from your fat. Don’t worry, you’re not going to starve, I’ll assure you. Did you know that a man once survived a 385 day fast? I’m sure you can make it till dinner time.

There is some good news:

If you find that you are always hungry inbetween meals, perhaps you should examine what you’re eating for meals. Did you know that eating meals that are high in healthy fats will satiate your appetite and thus satisfy you for far longer than that of a meal filled with carbohydrates? That sugar crash feeling that we’ve all experienced is a very real thing. Both proteins and fat initiate the release of natural satiety hormones (peptide YY, Cholecystokinin), these are the hormones that tell your brain that you are full. The consumption of carbohydrates (sugars) do NOT activate this hormonal system and often leads to overeating. If you were to eat three meals a day that include a moderate amount of healthy fats and protein, you’ll likely find that eating inbetween meal snacks will become unnecessary.

Here are some graphics that I borrowed from Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Obesity Codepublished just this year (2016). These graphs illustrate an example of insulin release over the course of an average day:

 3 meals no snacks (adequate insulin downtime)

3 meals w/ snacks (minimal insulin downtime)

Insulin is, in fact, the main hormone that regulates fat storage. So, wouldn’t you want to minimize its activity? It only makes sense that this first scenario would be more effective for weight loss.

Imagine if you were to only eat foods that were low on the glycemic scale and your insulin was rarely spiked to a significant degree, even during regular meals? Why that sounds a little bit like a recipe for healthy living! That would be a diet of healthy fats, proteins and only the carbohydrates that come from fiber rich vegetables and fruits. And guess what the side-effect would be? Yep, weight loss.

Perhaps we should collectively consider embracing some of the good ideas of our past, especially the ones that are based on truth and actually have a track-record of being effective. I mean, seriously, did we really think that eating more food, more often would be an effective strategy for weight-loss? It doesn’t even make sense.

If you’re an older person, as I am, you may be able to remember back to the day, prior to the late 1970s, before our country was amidst this current obesity epidemic, when families ate 3 square meals a day as a general rule. You were constantly being hounded to finish all your vegetables. And God forbid, if you were caught eating before meal time, your grandmother would say: “Quit snacking, you’ll ruin your supper!”  Well, she may not have been an expert at “kick the can” or dodge ball like you were, but in this particular instance, you’re grandmother was right.


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