To Snack or Not To Snack: The Metabolism Myth

For years we've been told that snacking between meals helps boost metabolism. You've heard the term "Urban Myth"? Well this just may be one of those myths. In reality, when it comes to eating, finding the best combination of how often, when, and what works for you really is the best approach for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

I am a snacker, tried and true. Well maybe that's not quite true. I eat meals that are the size of a snack more than 3 times a day...more like 4 or 5. This isn't planned, it's just the way I work. I eat often because I don't have the capacity to eat much. The same can apply to you. Not snacking per se, but if breakfast is not your thing, maybe a mid-morning snack sized meal is right for you or an early lunch. Or if you just naturally gravitate to a big meal mid-day or at dinner time and tend to eat light the rest of the day, then that's what you work with.

When I found this blog post by Jill Weisenberger about snacking and blood sugar levels, it really hit home on the subject of snacking to boost metabolism. This confirms for me that the snack-metabolism connection really is tenuous. Don't let the title throw you off. It's definitely worth a read even if managing blood glucose levels is not a concern for you.

Should You Snack When You Have Diabetes?
By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND

Snacks have been dubbed “the fourth meal” because we consume one-quarter of our calories between meals. Though many people think that snacking frequently is good for blood sugar control, weight management, and overall health, researchers have never identified an ideal pattern of eating frequency. In fact, there are several reasons that you may want to cut back on snacking…

It provides extra calories. Lots of people eat just as much at meals whether they snack or not. Americans have gotten heavier over the last few decades. We’ve also started consuming more calories, and most of those extra calories are consumed between meals.

Snacking does not boost metabolic rate. Contrary to popular belief, eating more often doesn’t keep your metabolism humming. While it is true that you burn a bit more calories to digest, absorb, and assimilate food and nutrients, there is no difference in a 24-hour period. The bump in calorie expenditure is influenced by what you eat, not how often you eat. In other words, the slight jump in your metabolic rate will be the same if you eat six times per day or if you consume those exact same foods in only three meals.

You probably don’t need to snack to prevent low blood sugar. Years ago, all diabetes medications had the side effect of causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), so healthcare professionals told people with diabetes to eat often. This was good advice then. But today, we have a host of diabetes medications that do not have this unfortunate side effect. Make an appointment with a certified diabetes educator to learn how your medications work and how diet and medications interact.

Snack foods are often not nutrient dense. The favorite snacks in North America are chips, chocolate, cheese, and cookies, according to a Neilson report. Yet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies fruits, vegetables and dairy as the most under-consumed food groups.

Foods To Choose If You Snack:

Low-carb snack choices:

  • Low fat cottage cheese with tomatoes, basil and black pepper
  • Nuts
  • Hard-boiled egg and vegetables
  • Vegetables dipped in salsa

Other snack choices:

  • ½ peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Hummus and whole grain crackers or vegetables
  • Any piece of fruit (typically a piece of fruit the size of a tennis ball has about 15 grams of carbohydrate.
  • Low fat plain yogurt mixed with applesauce or any fruit

Your best choices of snack foods should be the foods that you’re lacking throughout the day. And as noted above, that’s probably fruit, vegetables and dairy. Many people are also low on fish, whole grains, and nuts. Think about what you need more of and go for that.

You should also consider your blood sugar level when choosing your snack. If your blood sugar is already at the high end of your range, avoid pushing it higher by making lower-carb choices. Otherwise, nutrient-dense foods with carbohydrates like fruit and yogurt are just fine.

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Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997; 77(suppl 1):S57-70.