Does Snacking Make You Fat?

personal training nycFor years I’ve been telling weight loss clients they need to eat every three to four hours to increase their metabolic rate and lose weight. “Eat six small meals a day. It’ll stoke your metabolism and help you burn more calories while resting” said my younger, more naive self. It turns out I was wrong. The truth is, the more times you sit down to eat the more opportunities you have to stuff yourself silly or eat the wrong thing. In fact, all that snacking may actually increase your fat stores. If you’re anything like me, eating also wakes up the rapacious monster in your stomach. Some people have the willpower to remain within their limits, do you? Eating five to six small meals per day is still the predominant dogma among many physical trainers and nutritionists even though the supporting peer reviewed research is spurious at best. Eating frequency has little or no effect on increased metabolism.  Even though constant snacking is heavily encouraged in American society, it wasn’t always that way. My grandmother used to yell at me (lovingly) to not snack because “you’ll ruin your dinner!” Of course, she was right. The concept of ‘snack food’ was popularized in the 1950’s. By the 1970’s it really took hold and is now a multi-billion dollar industry which is arguably making us fatter and sicker.

FACT: Every time you eat anything (not just carbs) your pancreas releases more insulin into the blood stream. Insulin’s two jobs are to inhibit fat from being used as energy and to promote fat storage. Insulin resistance is a state where your body cannot clear glucose from the blood and your cells stop responding to insulin. Chronically higher insulin levels & higher blood sugar levels may lead to type 2 diabetes and other health problems.

There is no strong data proving that eating six small meals a day is superior to three regular meals. Most of the original research extolling the benefits of eating more frequently relied on unverifiable self-reported data. The dietary phenomenon of under-reporting caloric intake is known all too well in the scientific community. The average study participant will under-report daily food intake by about 20%. For overweight and obese subjects, the margin can be as high as 50% (Bellisle 2004).  The evidence on whether or not snacking makes people fat is mixed. However, there is a clear correlation between how much money is spent on snack foods and increased obesity rates (data from the 1970’s til now show a clear connection). Yes, correlation is not causation but common sense dictates that ultra-processed snack foods are not making us skinnier.

Hunger is a funny (not “ha-ha” funny, weird funny) phenomenon. It manifests itself in many ways including boredom, depression, dehydration, habit, proximity, smell etc… The feeling of hunger is triggered by over 100 physiological, psychological and environmental factors. Learn to control it and not be its slave. It might be a little uncomfortable at first but you will acclimate. In fact, I’ve noticed when I am hungry but not famished, my energy levels and cognition are higher. Many times meals/snacks feel as if they slow me down. Routinely, people feel tired after a meal, especially a large dinner with an overload of carbohydrates.  It is important to pick meals that energize you and don’t leave you sluggish or hungry a few hours later.  Experiment and find what works best for you.

TRY THIS: Next time you think you are hungry, truly hungry, cut up some raw broccoli and eat that as a snack. Not that hungry??

Things you can do to combat hunger:

  1. Drink water – seltzer water is especially good
  2. Try fasting and take back hunger control
  3. Brush your teeth
  4. Drink some hot coffee or tea (no sugar!!)
  5. Eat some raw vegetables
  6. Avoid tempting situations
  7. Chew gum
  8. Go do something physical and exert yourself
  9. Smoke a cigarette – just kidding, those will KILL you

But wait, what about the thermic effect of food (TEF)?  This is the bodily process of utilizing calories to eat and digest food. Every time you dine or snack your metabolic rate goes up a little. This can impose as much as a 10% increase in your basal metabolic rate! Not too shabby.  However, your TEF is a direct response to the total amount of food you eat and its macro-nutrient content. The frequency of meals has little if any bearing.  A sure way to increase your TEF is by simply eating more food.  Not a good idea if weight loss is your goal. The extra calories consumed will clearly outweigh the small increase in your metabolic rate. The major difference between eating six or three small meals a day is the intensity of the thermic spikes.  Six small meals will result in six small spikes whereas three big meals will give you three big spikes. If the calories and macronutrients are the same the TEF will be too. I can’t believe I have to say this but the act of eating and digesting food is not a good way to lose weight.  Furthermore, thermic effect of food is actually reduced in obese, insulin-resistant patients. There is no better method to elevate your basal metabolic rate than exercise.

Thermic effect of food (TEF) of Macro Nutrients:

  • Protein: 20-35% of calories burned through processing
  • Carbohydrates: 5-15% of calories burned through processing
  • Fats: 0-5% of calories burned through processing

To put this in practical terms, if you eat 100 calories of chicken, it may take 20-35 calories to for your body to digest this food. Effectively leaving you with 65-80 calories to utilize.  On the other hand super processed foods, like Twinkies, have a minuscule TEF.   Almost all of the 150 calories in a Twinkie are used because your body does not have to work hard in order to digest this confectionary abomination.

SIDE NOTE: Increasing meal frequency appears to help decrease hunger (in some) and improve appetite control in a few populations.  However, if you are anything like me, eating food increases hunger.  If you’re used to consuming a meal every three hours or so, your body begins to rely on exogenous glucose sources for energy as opposed to the glucose that your body stores as fat. Switching to a three or even two meal a day plan may help you control your cravings (fewer insulin spikes) and help you burn more fat. There are nevertheless a few groups of people who may benefit from eating several extra meals per day:

  1. Individuals who have a hard time putting on weight. It is easier to consume more calories if you are eating more frequently throughout the day.
  2. People who participate in sports with high energy expenditures: tri-athletes, heavy weight fighters, marathoners etc. If you need to take in 5000 calories or more to maintain your lean muscle and body weight it may be easier to do over the course of six meals as opposed to three.

Do you need to eat every three hours?  Ask yourself next time you feel hungry, “Am I really hungry or is it something else, like boredom, habit, low energy, stress, sadness, etc…?”  If you ate in the last three or four hours chances are your body doesn’t need food. Play a game and wait twenty minutes before you decide to satisfy your hunger. It may just go away. Better yet, if you want to increase your metabolic rate, exercise!

Sources: 

  1. Obesity: Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat & Perceived Hunger “We conclude that increasing meal frequency from three to six per day has no significant effect on 24-hr fat oxidation, but may increase hunger and the desire to eat.”
  2.  British Journal of Nutrition: Increase Meal Frequency Does Promote Greater Weight Loss This study shows there was no difference in weight loss between subjects with high/low meal frequencies. “We conclude that increasing MF (meal frequency)  does not promote greater body weight loss…”
  3.  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Position Statement “Increasing meal frequency does not appear to favorably change body composition in sedentary populations; Increased meal frequency does not appear to significantly enhance diet induced thermogenesis, total energy expenditure or resting metabolic rate.”
  4. British Journal Of Nutrition: Meal Frequency and Energy Balance  Evidence supports that meal frequency has nothing to do with energy in the subjects. “…there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency.”
  5.  International Journal of Obesity: Compared with Nibbling Shows no difference in energy in the subjects compared to 2 meals per day to 6 meals per day. “…meal frequency and a period of fasting have no major impact on energy intake or expenditure…”
  6. University Of Washington: Eating Frequency & Appetite “Findings suggest that when the energy and macronutrient content of the diet is equal, the consumption of smaller, more frequent meals may not positively impact inflammatory profiles or aid in appetite control.
  7. British Journal of Nutrition: Acute Effects on Metabolism & Appetite Profile of One Meal Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. “Eating three meals compared with two meals had no effects on 24 h energy expenditure, diet-induced thermogenesis, activity-induced energy expenditure and sleeping metabolic rate.”
  8. British Journal of Nutrition: Meal Frequency & Energy Balance  Meta analysis showed “Advantage of nibbling meal patterns failed to reveal significant benefits in respect of energy expenditure.”
  9.  Forum of Nutrition: Highlighting The Positive Impact of Increased Feeding Frequency Highlighting the positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on metabolism and weight management. – Proposes a higher eating frequency.
  10. Obesity: Association of Eating Frequency With Body Fatness Frequent eating was not found to be related to adiposity (fat) in premenopausal women, but it was associated with increased body fat in postmenopausal women.
  11. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Influence of Feeding Frequency“When the daily energy intake is consumed in a small number of large meals, there is an increased chance to become overweight, possibly by an elevated lipogenesis (fat synthesis and accumulation) or storage of energy after the meal.”
  12. The American Diabetes Association: From Nutrients to Meals  found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate two large meals a day lost more weight than when they consumed six smaller meals with the same amount of calories.
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