To snack, or not to snack? Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors graze throughout the day, or did they fast for most of the time and then feast in the evening? Would it have differed between men and women?
Well, first of all, just because our hunter-gatherer ancestors did something doesn’t make it the best plan for 21st century humans! Paleo is about learning from evolution, not imitation of whatever we think cavemen probably did (which, of course, we’ll probably never know for sure). The question isn’t “what did cavemen do?”; it’s “what will make humans healthiest?”
From that perspective, the evidence is very mixed. Different studies have conflicting results, and it’s hard to separate the act of eating between meals form the types of junk food it usually implies. Once you separate the basic concept of snacking from the typical “snack foods” (cookies, candy bars, refined flour and sugar and corn oil in various different forms…), “snacking” starts losing a lot of its negative associations.
Overall, snacking seems to be more a question of individual preference – it’s hard to lay down one rule that applies to everyone. So here’s a look at the evidence for and against snacking, plus some tips for doing it right if you’re going to do it at all.
Snacking and Weight Loss
In this very interesting review of the evidence, a group of researchers took a comprehensive look at some “myths and presumptions” in obesity research. One of the presumptions they took on: the idea that snacking causes weight gain or prevents weight loss.
Observational studies (studies where researchers just look at associations between snacking and weight gain) have shown conflicting results. Some of them find that snacking is a risk factor; others don’t. But you can’t prove anything just by association: what if people who snack more are snacking on unhealthy foods, so they’re also eating more junk food? In that case is it eating outside of meals that causes the weight gain, or is it eating more junk?
That’s where randomized controlled trials come in. In a randomized controlled trial, the researchers have (at least) two groups, an intervention group and a control group. The intervention group tries whatever is being studied, and the control group doesn’t. This gives the researchers a way to control for a lot of potential “muddiness” in the associations.
Randomized controlled trials found that snacking made no difference for weight loss, so the researchers labeled the idea that snacking affects weight as an unproven presumption: “convincing evidence does not yet exist to confirm or to disconfirm [its] legitimacy.” They’re not saying it’s false or true; they’re saying that the evidence is conflicting and there’s no clear data for making a stand one way or another.
But what about 6 small meals a day boosting metabolism? There’s no evidence that eating several small meals will “boost your metabolism." The metabolic boost from a meal is directly proportional to the size of the meal, so if you're eating the same amount of food in total, it doesn't matter how you break it up.
Is Snacking For You?
What about looking at it a different way, though? Instead of asking “is snacking good or bad for the average study subject who may or may not be anything like you personally?” it might be more helpful to ask “is snacking good for you specifically?”
Some people naturally feel fine eating three (or two, or one) meals a day without any snacks; they’d rather just eat more at mealtimes. Other people feel gross and over-full if they eat big meals, and prefer to have smaller meals supplemented by snacks. Neither is “wrong;” they’re just different eating patterns.
|If you’re a snacker…||If you’re not a snacker…|
Getting hungry or grouchy thanks to sugar highs and crashes isn’t “being a snacker;” it’s “being constantly hungry thanks to a bad diet.” Plenty of people find that once they take out all that junk and switch to Paleo, their “need” for snacks magically disappears and they’re perfectly happy going for hours without food (or even intermittent fasting). If you're eating lots of simple carbs without adequate fat and protein, constant snack cravings are only to be expected.
Being constantly hungry because you’re severely restricting your portion sizes also isn’t “being a snacker;” it’s just being hungry. But if you’re not restricting your meal sizes and still feeling physical hunger between meals on Paleo, then you might truly be a snacker.
You might also want to snack if you're trying to gain healthy weight, or if you're an athlete who needs a lot of food - it's just easier to get in the calories you need.
How to Snack Well
If you are a snacker, there’s nothing wrong with snacking – after all, it’s just the way your body was designed. But there’s a healthy and an unhealthy way to make it happen.
Even on Paleo, “snack” can often be a secret code for “borderline-healthy treat.” Snacks that fall into this category include dried fruit, nuts, “cookies” or “energy bars” made with nut flours and Paleo sweeteners, and other similar treats. There’s nothing wrong with Paleo treats once in a while, but they shouldn’t be everyday foods. If you’re snacking on these kinds of treats every day (maybe even twice a day), then you’re crowding out other, more nutrient-dense foods from your diet, and very likely feeding any sugar cravings that you might still be struggling with. These treats can also easily throw a wrench in the weight-loss machine.
Instead of using Paleo treats as snacks, a better plan is to treat your snacks as fuel: eat snacks to satisfy your physical hunger, not for fun or entertainment. There’s a big list of Paleo snack options here; some good, nut-free, non-“treat” snacks include:
- Guacamole with vegetables (counting calories is not recommended, but 100-calorie packs of guac are very convenient for grab-and-go snacks)
- Hard-boiled egg
- Leftover chicken drumstick
Also, bear in mind that your need to snack may change with your diet – sometimes there’s a bit of a “lag” between starting Paleo and feeling that magical ability to go from lunch to dinner without hunger pangs. It’s perfectly fine to switch back and forth between being a snacker and not snacking at all.
Summing it Up
The relationship between snacking and weight loss is very complicated. On the one hand, snacks help prevent hunger, which makes most people more likely to stick with healthy eating. On the other hand, snacking can easily turn into a vehicle for junk food and “technically Paleo” treats.
The studies we have are conflicting (and all use different definitions of “snack” so it’s hard to come up with an overall assessment). It seems that snacking might be more of an individual preference: some people do better with it, and others do better without. The best plan is to do what works for you – whether you prefer smaller meals with snacks or larger meals without snacks, the best diet is one that doesn’t make you miserable. If you do prefer to snack, just make sure you’re snacking on healthy, nutrient-dense foods, and saving the Paleo treats for truly special occasions.