“What’s a healthy snack I can eat in between meals” is a question I receive often. And if you look at most sample meal plans from nutritionists or trainers, they’re likely to look something like this:
Breakfast > Snack > Lunch > Snack > Dinner
It’s obvious that choosing unhealthy snack options isn’t going to help you reach your goals. But, there’s a strong argument that even “healthy” snacking isn’t a good idea either. My recommendation has always been — and still is — that snacking should be avoided.
Snacking Interrupts Hunger
Everyone hates being hungry and snacking is an obvious solution to that problem. But, hunger is just a symptom. It’s a symptom of poor nutrition, a lack of satiety-triggering macronutrients (fat and protein), hormone dysregulation, chronic caloric deficit, or unmet emotional needs.
It can be one of those causes or many of them. The important point is that we shouldn’t be trying to solve hunger, we should be trying to solve the cause of hunger. The unmet need resulting in the symptom of hunger is not resolved with snacking.
Another issue with hunger — based on my experience with clients — is that many people misidentify hunger signals. This mostly happens when people have an unhealthy relationship with food and eat emotionally, a problem far more common than most realize. In this scenario, the process of snacking exacerbates emotional eating.
As a general rule of thumb, feeling true physical hunger is healthy. This doesn’t mean you should live in a constant state of hunger as many “dieters” do — that’s not healthy. What’s healthy is having the ability to listen to your body and nourish legitimate hunger signals with a meal that adequately meets physical needs. And to repeat that process two or three times a day.
Snacking is Often Mindless
One of the first habits of conscious eating is to only eat sitting down at a table, free of distractions. Mindfulness goes a long way toward emotional awareness, which directly contributes to an improved relationship with food and an increase in motivation for physical and mental healing.
Mindlessness accomplishes the opposite, depleting emotional awareness, sabotaging your relationship with food, and eventually eroding your motivation.
Most people use snacking to pre-emptively strike hunger. In this scenario, you never experience legitimate physical hunger — the hunger you experience is emotional. This further complicates your ability to listen to your body’s needs and meet them.
Lastly, mindless snacking follows the food version of Parkinson’s Law: your appetite will expand to accommodate the portion available. This is less true if you snack on real food, but you’ll almost always overeat at snack time unless portions are consciously limited beforehand. Even then, portion control is a restriction mindset that can lead to further disordered eating.
Snacking Can Disrupt Leptin Signaling
One of the keys to sustaining a healthy body is hormone regulation. Within the hormone discussion, insulin tends to be the most discussed — and fought over — hormone. But, there’s another hormone that is arguably more important: leptin.
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat tissue that regulates appetite/hunger, metabolism, and activity/motivation. Discovered in the 1990s, leptin research is still in its infancy, but the more science learns about leptin, the more its importance becomes clear.
In order for leptin to do its job, leptin receptors in the brain (hypothalamus) must be working properly. When these receptors don’t adequately register leptin signals, this is known as Leptin Resistance. When this occurs, satiety signals and activity/motivation signals are not triggered properly.
In humans who have a rare mutation of the leptin gene, their hunger is unsatisfiable and obesity results. If you want to maintain accurate satiety and physical activity signaling and avoid being overweight (especially without having to count calories), leptin function must be maintained.
Leptin is a circadian hormone — it rises and falls according to a cycle. Snacking interrupts this circadian rhythm and places more stress on the liver as increased periods of eating call for more insulin production. Insulin also increases leptin levels, which contributes to leptin resistance.
To be perfectly clear, snacking on real food will not lead to metabolic and hormonal problems, but if you’re trying to heal a busted up metabolism and lose weight, snacking is ill-advised.
Life Without Snacking
My typical prescription for meal timing, quantity, and so on is to help people identify true hunger and then feed that hunger legitimately at mealtime with a goal of being able to get from one meal to the next relatively comfortably.
One of the biggest objections I had with the eat, snack, eat model (when I tried it) was that it creates a mental prison with regard to food that you can’t escape from. You’re constantly thinking about — and searching for — food. It’s far less stressful to eat less frequently in larger quantity. And contrary to popular belief, eating smaller meals more frequently isn’t a magic metabolic prescription for fat loss.
If you eat optimally at meal one, you should coast into meal two 5+ hours later with a steady increase in physical hunger that’s not uncomfortable. At this point, you should wait until your hunger is in the 7 to 9 range on a scale of 1 to 10 before eating, which verifies that you’re eating to nourish physical hunger and not emotional hunger.
After a while of eating this way, cravings diminish (especially if leptin sensitivity is restored and insulin is kept in check) and life is smooth sailing. You’re freed from the hyper-focus-on-food prison, you’re protected from overeating, and you’re well on your way to maintaining a healthy relationship with food.