With summer just around the corner, many people are coming out of winter hibernation and dreading the season of the swimsuit. In preparation, they are hitting the gyms, dusting off the P90X DVD’s, and returning to their New Year’s resolution diet plans (remember those?).
Being in the swimsuit-phobic camp myself, I decided to look more deeply into some of the weight loss strategies that I’ve read about or hear about on a regular basis and explain my opinions of each one based on their effectiveness.
Today I’m starting with a very simple, yet highly misunderstood concept: snacking. I’m sure at some point you’ve heard that six small meals per day is better for weight loss than three large meals because eating regularly boosts metabolism, maintains stable blood sugar levels, and helps you eat fewer calories overall.
But is this actually true?
Despite the claims that eating more frequently will lead to weight loss, studies indicate that this is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true. Between 1997 and 2007, the average number of eating occasions (meals/snacks) increased from 3.5/day to 5.0/day. The average number of calories consumed each day rose from 1803 to 2374, an increase of 571 calories per day. Calorie intake in the U.S. has been increasing by an average of 28 calories per day per year since 1977.
But what if you’re on a low-calorie diet?
A study from the University of Ottawa found no weight loss advantage to splitting calories among six meals rather than three. In other words, eating three meals of 700 calories is the same as eating six meals of 350 calories.
Another study concluded that eating six meals per day did not boost calorie-burning or fat loss, and rather made people want to eat more!
People who are constantly grazing are not only eating more calories each day, they are also preventing their bodies from benefiting from intermittent fasting — those periods of digestive rest between meals. Studies in both humans and animals indicate that intermittent fasting improves insulin sensitivity, lowers glucose, and induces cleanup of cellular waste.
Another problem with snacking is that most Americans are mindless eaters. Rarely do we stop after each bite and ask ourselves if we’re full, so we end up eating way more than we actually need. I recommend the book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., for more eye-opening information on this topic.
We often give in to our food addictions and go for convenience foods, which are typically high in calories and low in nutrients. These foods tend to fuel our cravings even further, encouraging us to eat more than we need. Studies show that the “just eat one bite” method doesn’t actually work, so I stray from the typical dietitian motto of “everything in moderation.” Since certain foods (i.e. sugar) activate the same areas of the brain as cocaine, shouldn’t we treat food addictions more like drug addictions? You wouldn’t tell a drug addict to use cocaine in moderation!
There are some people for which healthy snacking is acceptable.
These include people who are experiencing rapid growth (during childhood, adolescence, or puberty), women who are pregnant or lactating, athletes who burn 300+ calories during exercise daily, and those with certain medical conditions that require snacking.
For those of us who do not fall under any of the above categories, here are my recommendations:
→ If you are tempted to snack during the day, stop and ask yourself if you’re truly hungry, or just bored. If you’re not hungry enough to eat raw fruit or vegetables, you’re probably not really hungry.
→ If you are truly hungry between meals, increase meal sizes (nutrient-dense foods!). Eat a larger salad with beans or quinoa to stay full, a large plate of veggies, etc.
→ To reap the benefits of intermittent fasting, allow 4-5 hours between meals and do not eat anything after dinner until breakfast.
→ Set goals for yourself and stick to them. For example, decide not to snack at all during the week, but allow yourself to have roasted chickpeas, popcorn, veggies and hummus, or some other healthful snack while you watch a ball game on the weekends.
→ Limit or eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These only make you crave more sweets and consume more calories. Plus, they’re bad for your overall health.
Stay tuned for more posts about weight loss myths in the next few weeks! Comment below or email me with your questions!