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Is snacking ruining your health?

Do you ever find yourself snacking more than you should? Maybe you’re guilty of justifying your snack choices, saying things like, ‘just one brownie won’t hurt’, ‘I’ll just eat less at dinner since I’m having these chips now’, or ‘but cheese and biscuits are healthy, right?’

With our busy, always-on lifestyles, it’s often tempting to adapt our eating schedules away from the traditional three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even when we’re stuck inside feeling bored, the siren calls of the fridge and pantry are hard to ignore, and we might find ourselves snacking as a way to pass the time thinking it couldn’t hurt. In fact, many internet sources even spout the suggestion that eating frequent small meals throughout the day is a healthier option – saying it controls hunger while increasing metabolism.

But there’s actually no strong scientific evidence to back up this approach, says Dr Rebecca Leech, a National Heart Foundation Research Fellow at Deakin University. ‘With the abundance of often contradictory nutrition information out there, it’s no wonder that people are confused,’ she says.

What’s more, Dr Leech’s research, conducted under the supervision of Professor Sarah McNaughton, suggests that favouring a ‘grazing’ style eating pattern over a conventional ‘three-meals a day’ pattern may actually promote weight gain.

Dr Leech’s doctoral thesis, ‘Understanding Adults’ Eating Patterns’, which was awarded the Alfred Deakin Medal, highlights two key healthy eating messages:

  • regular meals are an important part of a healthy diet
  • choosing healthier snacks may be a key strategy for improving diet and preventing weight gain.

Why snacking can be so unhealthy

One of the problems with eating small snacks instead of regular meals is it can be more tempting to choose less healthy options.

‘My research found evidence of a “grazing” style eating pattern, characterised by higher snack frequency and energy intake from snacks and eating later in the day,’ Dr Leech says. ‘This pattern was associated with higher intakes of unhealthy food in both men and women, and women who were overweight or obese were shown to be more likely to have a “grazing” pattern.’

When sitting down for lunch you might choose to eat a salad sandwich, or you could fall into the trap of thinking it’s okay to skip this for a muesli bar, a coffee and some chips, spread out over the afternoon.

Even if you think you’re choosing healthy snacks to ‘graze’ on, you could end up over-eating without realising it. Dr Leech warns: ‘increasing the number of eating opportunities may make it more challenging to stay within our daily energy requirements. Research has consistently shown a positive association between eating frequency and total energy intakes.’

'My research found evidence of a “grazing” style eating pattern, characterised by higher snack frequency and energy intake from snacks and eating later in the day.'

Dr Rebecca Leech,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Why regular meals are important in a healthy diet

Dr Leech says meal frequency ‘can be associated with better adherence to national recommendations for healthy eating in both men and women’.

‘Meals, particularly the lunch and dinner meal, are often when the largest volume of food is consumed and represent important opportunities for meeting recommendations for intakes of key foods and nutrients,’ Dr Leech adds.

However, there is no set recommendation in the number of meals to eat per day.

‘In the 2011-2012, National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, Australian adults reported having, on average, about three meals per day and two to three snacks per day,’ she says. ‘It would be possible to have a healthy diet consisting of six small meals per day, so long as the meals consist of healthy food choices and overall food intake is monitored.’

Don’t worry – if you’re the kind of person who often doesn’t feel hungry at meal times, it’s okay to be flexible.

Tips for choosing healthier snacks

If you do find yourself craving unhealthy snacks every day, it might be a good idea to reassess your overall diet.

‘Poor food choices at snacks may be an indicator that our meals are inadequate,’ Dr Leech suggests. ‘For example, previous research as shown that skipping breakfast is related to overall poorer diet quality.’

She adds: ‘However, eating is a complex behaviour and snacking between meals may be driven by factors other than hunger. For example, there are situational influences that could influence snacking behaviours such as our stress levels, our mood states, presence of others and eating location.’

So when it comes to making healthy snack choices, what does Dr Leech suggest? Check out her recommendations in the list below.

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Dr Rebecca Leech
Dr Rebecca Leech

National Heart Foundation Research Fellow, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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