Do you snack? If you are like the majority of the population, you probably do. Most people believe that we need to snack to help keep our metabolism ticking over and avoid the blood sugar lows.
However snacking is a relatively new phenomenon and for most of human history we didn’t fall into a hypoglycaemic coma if food wasn’t available to graze on every few hours. In fact, snacking was seen as uncouth, a behaviour associated with the lower class, and proper etiquette around food involved a knife and fork.
So why the change?
We are hungrier. If we look at dietary patterns, “healthy eating” to most people means they choose to buy foods which are naturally low in fat or processed to be this way. So, in part, the drive for snacking comes from the food industry who took the low fat message and ran with it — removing fat from foods that would otherwise keep us more satisfied.
These foods may not provide the same mouthfeel, texture and flavour that we are after (think of the difference between a real chocolate biscuit and a low-fat one). If your taste buds aren’t satisfied you’re more likely to think about food more often and seek out more food to over-compensate for not choosing the food you wanted in the first place.
We also try to be ‘“good” during the day (being “good” means choosing low-calorie foods), but this too leaves us not quite satisfied.
In New Zealand the drive for snacking is intricately tied to television viewing.
It’s no coincidence that prime time viewing is broken up by advertisements for fast food, new cereal based products, icecream and chocolate. Unsurprisingly, children who spend more time watching television are also the heaviest consumers of snack foods. They influence their parents’ purchasing habits and with these snack foods in the house, parents are just as likely to grab a kiddie-sized packet of chips as the kids are.
So does this matter in terms of our overall health?
Recent reviews have found that body composition and fat loss was better for people who ate 5-6 small meals a day compared to eating three times per day. On closer investigation, though, there was one study which influenced the entire review results and without it there were no differences between the groups.
Other scientific literature regarding the habit of snacking provides two different nutrient profiles. For people of a healthy weight, snacks provide essential nutrients and calories and those who snack are able to adjust their energy intake accordingly to account for an increased eating frequency.
In contrast, snacks for people who are more likely to be overweight or obese represent the most worrying attributes of the modern diet, providing 40 per cent of added sugar calories and falling short of essential micronutrients. Looking at the myriad bright coloured packets in aisle four, it’s not a surprise.
So what about the effects on our bodies of snacking?
I don’t recommend snacking for most people, as time and time again I see that people don’t actually know what a “small meal” is and overeat calories. A lot of snack-based foods are energy rich and nutrient poor — supplying a LOT of calories with little nutrition.
Many people never feel hungry, partly because they are afraid of it. We have been told that if we don’t eat every three hours our body goes into “starvation” mode and holds on to all of the calories of the next meal, for fear of not getting another meal. This is not strictly true — in fact, it’s more than likely not the truth for most people.
When our blood sugars run low the liver is called on to access glucose from stored carbohydrate (from muscles or its own stores) or produce it from the breakdown of fatty acids or protein. If we snack frequently then the body has no requirement to do this.
Though this means you are protected from losing muscle mass (a concern for those who struggle to gain weight), the hormonal effect may not be so favourable. Insulin is required to digest carbohydrate food (and dairy protein to a lesser extent), and the pancreas works in two phases — first to release insulin in the first 10 minutes of digesting food, and secondly to produce more once this is used up.
This means we have higher levels of insulin in our bloodstream, a state associated with increased risk of blood sugar disregulation and inflammation (the state which initiates disease progression). This also causes an increase in the release of another hormone, leptin, into the blood stream.
Leptin can regulate appetite in two ways — by signalling to the brain that we are full, and by signalling to the pancreas that we no longer need insulin. However, chronically high insulin levels (as a result of grazing or snacking) can lead to chronically high leptin, and over time, leptin-resistance, so the brain (and pancreas) can no longer respond to leptin signals.
Talk about a cascade of hormonal challenges! Without leptin working properly, and without a break in food intake, the pancreas can end up working overtime to produce insulin — which in itself is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
And if that’s not bad enough, the liver (responsible for converting stored carbohydrate into glucose when we are low in the bloodstream, remember?) may not have an opportunity to get rid of its stored carbohydrate, therefore will turn any extra carbohydrates to triglycerides and send them back out to the bloodstream.
That is one of the reasons a high-carbohydrate diet can lead to high blood triglycerides, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Of course, I’ve actually glossed over a number of complex processes and hormones that play important roles in determining what we eat and what we do with what we eat, but I hope this gives you some insight into why snacking might not be the best thing for your body.
But, all that said, it is down to the individual as to whether you need to snack.
It could well be appropriate if:
- You have an active job.
- You genuinely feel hungry and aren't just eating because it's 10am or 3pm.
- You prefer the feeling of eating smaller meals throughout the day and don't have a problem with mood, concentration, cravings, blood sugar control and body fat regulation.
- You have consistent and lasting energy levels throughout the day.
- Your meals are balanced to supply protein, fat and carbohydrate that are also rich in micronutrients and low in what is known as "human interference".
- You are generally satisfied and don't really think too much about food or feel too hungry 1-2 hours after eating.
- For children, small tummies and high energy needs mean snacking makes sense as it can be difficult for them to get the nutrients they need for growth and development. It's all about quality though, and you are less likely to find that in a shiny, bright coloured packet that is endorsed by the latest Disney character
And when might snacking not be appropriate or the best approach? If any of the above are not true.
Apple pancake for one
This is filling, so you’ll be less likely to snack if you don’t actually require one.
1 tsp coconut oil
½ apple, sliced
½ cup almond milk
1 Tbsp almond flour
1 Tbsp coconut flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp allspice
- Heat oven to 200C.
- Melt coconut oil in a non-stick frying pan and add apple slices. Flip when soft on both sides.
- Place apple in bottom of small single-serve baking dish (you could also use large muffin tin).
- Mix remaining ingredients together and pour over the apples. Bake for 15-20 minutes until set.
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Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. To find out more and to sign up, visit mikkiwilliden.com.