There’s no doubt that snacking is on the rise and, in fact, may even be replacing traditional meals. The snacking trend is fueled by busy schedules and the need for fast and convenient options on-the-go. While snacks have the potential to provide a nutritious source of energy between meals, snacking often contributes to excess sugar and fat in the diet and often less healthy eating patterns.
Eating high-calorie snacks has the potential to disrupt the biological clock, causing overeating. A study published recently in the journal Current Biology found that the brain’s biological clock is connected to the separate dopamine-producing pleasure center of the brain. When high-calorie foods are eaten, the body’s natural eating time is disrupted and overeating is more likely to occur.
Other studies have shown that excess calories consumed between meals and during typical resting hours are more likely to be stored as fat than the same amount of calories consumed during normal eating hours. This can lead to unwanted weight gain and health problems like diabetes. This is probably at least partially to explain for shift workers’ increased risk of serious health conditions like cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and digestive concerns.
Furthermore, it appears that those who eat a more significant breakfast and a smaller dinner burn more calories throughout the day compared to those who consume a lighter breakfast and a bigger dinner. According to the American Heart Association, breakfast eaters have lower rates of heart disease. In addition to a boost in metabolism, those who eat more at breakfast tend to have less hunger and sugar cravings throughout the day.
It seems that for many people, aiming for three meals every day that are in alignment with one’s biological clock is the best approach to good health and optimal metabolism. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no place for snacks. Smart snacking can still play a role in keeping up energy levels and good nutrition throughout the day.
Here are some strategies for creating and adhering to a healthy eating pattern:
1. Don’t skip breakfast. Start your day with a balanced morning meal that contains both fiber-rich carbohydrates and protein like a piece of whole grain toast and egg or berries and yogurt.
2. Plan for larger meals earlier in the day and smaller meals later in the day, which for many people is in better tune with their biological clock.
3. Add in a smart snack when meals are more than four to five hours apart to help curb excess hunger. A well-portioned snack is about 100 to 200 calories.
4. Steer away from ultra-processed snack foods that are laden with sugar, fat and sodium and are more likely to contribute to excess calories.
5. Snack on vegetables. Vegetables are nutrient-dense and low in calories so they are a great snacking option.
6. Plan ahead. Having a plan for mealtimes can help you anticipate if you might need a snack between meals.
7. Some people, including those who are more active or people with appetite problems, may need to eat more often to be sure to get enough calories and nutrients.
LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.