If you're a woman trying to lose weight by following a low-calorie diet, eating a snack between breakfast and lunch could undermine your progress.
That's the take-away message from a new study published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. In the year-long study, mid-morning snackers saw their pounds come off much more slowly than women who ate a healthy breakfast but did not snack before lunch.
Whether between-meal snacking helps or hinders weight loss is unclear. Previous studies have turned up conflicting results.
The current study set out to determine the relationship of between-meal snacking and snacking frequency with weight loss and nutrient intake in 123 overweight to obese women, ages 50 to 75.
The women were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The diet-alone group consumed between 1,200 to 2,000 calories per day, depending on their starting weight, with less than 30 per cent of those calories coming from fat.
The diet-plus exercise group followed the same calorie guidelines but also included 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five days per week.
All participants received nutritional advice but nothing was mentioned regarding snacking.
After one year, the women were asked to record the time, type and frequency of meals on a normal day.
Women who ate a mid-morning snack lost on average 7 per cent of their body weight while those who didn't eat a mid-morning snack shed 11 per cent of their weight.
In terms of nutrition, women who ate at least two snacks per day consumed more fibre than women who ate fewer snacks. And women who had an afternoon snack had a higher daily intake of fruits and vegetables compared to those who didn't.
The researchers speculate that the slower weight loss experienced by morning snackers does not relate to the time of day, but rather to the short interval between breakfast and lunch. In this case, mid-morning snacking might reflect mindless eating rather than eating to satisfy hunger.
While snacking too close to a meal can sabotage weight loss, waiting too long between meals can also be detrimental. Forgoing a snack between lunch and dinner can lead to excessive hunger and overeating at dinner.
In my opinion, snacking is an essential part of a meal plan designed for weight loss. In fact, among more than 5,000 men and women enrolled in the National Weight Control Registry – people who have lost, on average, 70 pounds and kept it off for years – the vast majority report eating often during the day instead of eating three large meals.
Spreading out food intake out keeps the stomach partly full and prevents overeating at meal time.
Snacks also provide an opportunity to boost the intake of important nutrients like protein, fibre and calcium.
The key, however, is to snack strategically – to choose nutrient-packed snacks at the right times to stave off hunger and prevent overeating later in the day.
Time it right
If your meals are longer than four hours apart, plan for a snack to prevent being overly hungry at your next meal. For instance, if you eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at noon, include a mid-morning snack at 10 a.m.
If you eat breakfast at 8 a.m. and lunch at noon, you probably don't need a snack. What many of my clients do, however, is carry over a serving of fruit from breakfast to eat later in the morning.
Most of my clients – myself included – need to eat a snack about 3 hours after lunch to feel energized until dinner. If you exercise after work and eat a late dinner, you might benefit from a mid- and late-afternoon snack.
Whether you're trying to lose weight or prevent gain, calories matter. Let's face it, most of us don't need a 400-calorie slice of banana bread with our coffee.
Snacks should contain 150 to 200 calories for women and 200 to 250 calories for men.
To keep portion size under control, don't snack from the box. Read nutrition labels to determine how many crackers, rice cakes, nuts, etc. counts as one serving. Then measure out one serving and put it on a plate.
Choose low glycemic
Snacks should have a low rating on the glycemic index (GI). Low-GI foods are digested slowly, leading to a gradual rise in blood sugar, helping you feel energetic and satisfied longer.
Low-GI snacks include dried apricots and nuts, yogurt and berries, a smoothie made with milk or soy milk and frozen berries, a cup of bean or lentil soup, half a pita with tuna, Ryvita or Wasa crackers with almond butter, or yogurt topped with a quarter cup of bran cereal.
Make it count
Choose snacks that increase your intake of nutrients or food groups that your meals don't supply enough of. For example, many women – and men – don't get enough calcium in their diet. Calcium-rich snacks include yogurt, low-fat milk, soy smoothies, non-fat lattes, and part-skim cheese.
Snacks are also a good way to increase your intake of fruit and vegetables. Add blueberries to yogurt, pair your cheese with an apple, or puree frozen strawberries and banana with milk or soy beverage to make a smoothie.
Pack red pepper strips, broccoli florets, grape tomatoes and cucumber slices to munch on with a quarter cup of hummus mid-afternoon.
Pack your snacks
To prevent hitting the vending machine – or the candy bowl on your co-worker's desk – bring snacks to work. It takes no time to throw an apple, an energy bar or a small package of nuts into your purse or briefcase.
TRY THESE 150-CALORIE SNACKS
•1 small apple + 1 Lite Babybel cheese (20 grams)
•1 medium red pepper, sliced + ¼ cup hummus
•1 medium (16-ounce) non-fat latte
•2 Ryvita crispbreads + 1 tablespoon almond butter
•¾ cup plain 1% yogurt + ½ cup blueberries
•21 plain almonds
•4 dried apricots + 6 walnut halves
•¾ cup 1% cottage cheese + ½ cup crushed pineapple (water-packed)
•Small tin of tuna (85 g) + 1 Wasa cripsbread
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com