Understanding The Root Causes Of Snacking

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Researchers investigate noshing
Researchers investigate noshing

According to the news release from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (the snack study was part of a larger trial examining the effects of nutrition and exercise on breast cancer) eating between meals may "sabotage" the overall weight loss effort:

In the course of the year-long study, the researchers found that mid-morning snackers lost an average of 7 percent of their total body weight while those who ate a healthy breakfast but did not snack before lunch lost more than 11 percent of their body weight. For the study, a snack was defined as any food or drink that was consumed between main meals.

“We think this finding may not relate necessarily to the time of day one snacks, but rather to the short interval between breakfast and lunch. Mid-morning snacking therefore might be a reflection of recreational or mindless eating habits rather than eating to satisfy true hunger,”

said study author Anne McTiernan, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the Hutchinson Center’s Public Health Sciences Division and director of its Prevention Center.

While snacking too close to a main meal may be detrimental to weight loss, waiting too long between meals also may sabotage dieting efforts, she said. “Snacking could be part of a dieter’s toolkit if they’re eating in response to true hunger. Individuals should determine if they experience long intervals – such as more than five hours – between meals. Adding a snack might help people deal better with hunger and ultimately help them to make more sound choices at their next meal.”

As someone who relies on an apple or banana around 10:30 to keep me going until lunch, I found the study somewhat confusing. So I turned to Dr. Beth Frates, Assistant Director of Medical Education of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, wellness coach and former (volunteer) advisor to CommonHealth's Fresh Start project.

Frates is well aware that snacking is complex, and often motivated by multiple factors. Her response to the study, lightly edited, is below:

This is an interesting article on snacking.
Working towards a peaceful mind, a healthy body and a joyful heart, I often ask 3 questions about snacks:

1) Why are you eating a snack?
2) When are you eating a snack?
3) What are you eating for a snack?

The answers to all of these questions are important.

First, why snack — what is the motivation? Are you bored? Are you in a routine where you break at 10am and grab a muffin with a friend? Do you think you are supposed to snack at regular intervals in the day? Getting to the root cause of snacking is the first step. If you are snacking because you are hungry or because you have an early breakfast and 4 hours later, you feel hungry, that might be a good reason to snack.

However, if you are snacking because you had a white bagel with butter for breakfast and you feel hungry shortly thereafter, perhaps you should rethink your breakfast and select a fiber rich, protein rich, nutrient dense option with phytonutrients from fruits or vegetables. Mostly, by eating a protein and fiber rich breakfast, you will feel full longer and not get a rapid sugar spike which then leads to hunger pains shortly thereafter.

If you are snacking because you are bored, perhaps you could try taking a walk with a friend or even a mini exercise break at your desk. If you are snacking because it is your routine, perhaps you want to think about the quality and quantity of your snack as well as the quality and quantity of your breakfast.

Second, when are you snacking? If you eat breakfast later than usual, say 9am, but continue on with your 10 am snack because that is your routine, that might not be the most prudent option. You may be listening to an external clock rather than your body's signals. Listening to your body and planning for fiber rich, protein rich, nutrient dense, phytonutrient packed meals and snacks will help you control your blood sugars and keep you satisfied for longer. Feeling hungry soon after a meal might well be an indicator that your meal was too rich in white flour, sugar or sweets that caused a sugar spike, insulin spike and then hunger pains.

Third, and the key: What are you eating for a snack? As mentioned in 1) and 2) above, healthy snacks are nutrient dense snacks such as a handful of almonds, an apple with a teaspoon of peanut butter, a cheese stick, or greek yogurt with a handful of walnuts. As noted in the article, most people snack on empty calories like potato chips, cookies, candy. These are sure to send you into the sugar spike, insulin spike, hunger pain cycle.

Thinking about the quantity and the quality of your food choices is a critical part of maintaining good health and reaching your optimal state of wellness where you can enjoy a peaceful mind, healthy body and joyful heart (because you are not feeling guilty about snacking on a whole bag of chips)!

This program aired on November 29, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.