Does Snacking Hinder Weight Loss?

Photo by George Doyle

I am surrounded by dietitians and nutrition-minded people on a daily basis. It seems like we all live by snacking and most dietitians I know have food with them at all times — I myself find it hard to go more than a few hours without a small, healthy snack. The basic idea is that if we consume a snack between meals, we’re not as hungry as we would have been if we hadn’t snacked, putting a stop on overeating at mealtimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a negative behavior, and I certainly hadn’t considered the time of day I chose to partake until I read a recent study examining snacking behaviors. So the question now is, is snacking really good for you, and does the time of day matter?

The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, looked at snacking behaviors of 123 postmenopausal, overweight to obese women participating in a weight-loss intervention. They were assigned to either a diet-only group or a diet and exercise group, and everyone was told to target their intake to about 1,200 and 2,000 calories per day, with no specific recommendation towards snacking.

By the end of the year, what they found was a shock: women who ate a snack between breakfast and lunch were less likely to lose weight than those who didn’t, even more so than those who took an afternoon-only snack. Why?

Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Public Health Sciences Division, said that even though the women were given a ballpark goal for 1,200 to 2,000 calories, the total number of calories wasn’t actually measured, so they can’t know how much they took in. “However, the difference in weight loss strongly suggests that the morning snackers were eating more calories than the other women,” said McTiernan. They were also more likely to indulge in more than one snack per day.

The bottom line? Calories count when it comes to weight maintenance and weight loss efforts, and snacking in the morning won’t help weight loss if you can’t compensate for it later in the day. If you choose to eat a snack, you have to remember to take those calories into consideration for your daily calorie consumption.

If you’re going to snack, use it as a chance to eat more fruits and vegetables — pairing those with a good source of protein or healthy fat is a great way to stay satisfied while also keeping snack calories in check. Some examples are a handful of almonds with a small apple, a whole wheat tortilla with half a banana and peanut butter, or a cup of sliced raw vegetables with hummus. And especially bear in mind, if you need a snack in the mid-morning, make it a healthy one and consider those calories when planning another snack later in the day.

Kong A, Beresfod SA, Alfano CM, Foster-Schubert KE, Neuhouser ML, Johnson DB. Associations between Snacking and Weight Loss and Nutrient Intake among Postmenopausal Overweight to Obese Women in a Dietary Weight-Loss Intervention. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2011; 111: 1898-1903.