Women dieters who grab a snack between breakfast and lunch lose less weight compared to those who abstain from a mid-morning snack, according to a study led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre.
The results of this randomised trial, led by Anne McTiernan, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the Hutchinson Centre's Public Health Sciences Division and director of its Prevention Centre, will be published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
In the course of the year-long study, the researchers found that mid-morning snackers lost an average of 7% of their total body weight while those who ate a healthy breakfast but did not snack before lunch lost more than 11% of their body weight. For the study, a snack was defined as any food or drink that was consumed between main meals.
Interval between meals
"We think this finding may not relate necessarily to the time of day one snacks, but rather to the short interval between breakfast and lunch. Mid-morning snacking therefore might be a reflection of recreational or mindless eating habits rather than eating to satisfy true hunger," said McTiernan, the corresponding author of the paper.
While snacking too close to a main meal may be detrimental to weight loss, waiting too long between meals also may sabotage dieting efforts, she said. "Snacking could be part of a dieter's toolkit if they're eating in response to true hunger. Individuals should determine if they experience long intervals – such as more than five hours – between meals. Adding a snack might help people deal better with hunger and ultimately help them to make more sound choices at their next meal."
The study also revealed that women who reported eating more than two snacks a day had higher fibre intake than those who snacked less frequently, and afternoon nibblers ate more fruits and vegetables compared to women who didn't snack between lunch and dinner.
Nutrition, exercise and breast cancer
The ancillary study, part of a larger randomised clinical trial designed to test the effects of nutrition and exercise on breast cancer risk, involved 123 overweight-to-obese postmenopausal women, ages 50 to 75, who were randomly assigned to either a diet-alone intervention (goal: 1,200 to 2,000 calories a day, depending on starting weight, and fewer than 30% of daily calories from fat), or diet plus exercise (same calorie and fat restrictions plus 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day, five days a week). While the women received nutrition counselling they were not given any specific instructions or recommendations about snacking behaviour.
At the end of the study the women were asked to record the time, type and frequency of meals consumed on a normal day. Percent of calories from fat, fibre and fruit and vegetable intake were also estimated using a food-frequency questionnaire.
Snacking may be beneficial
"Many people think that a weight-loss programme has to mean always feeling hungry," McTiernan said. "Our study suggests that snacking may actually help with weight loss if not done too close to another meal, particularly if the snacks are healthy foods that can help you feel full without adding too many calories."
Nationwide surveys indicate that 97% of US adults report snacking, and such behaviour is consistent across age groups. One study that surveyed a national random sample of more than 1,500 adults found that the most commonly preferred snacks were salty and crunchy items such as potato chips, pretzels and nuts; baked goods such as cookies and cakes; fruits; and ice cream.
Not all snacks are created equal, however. Foods less conducive to weight loss include empty-calorie items that contribute fat, salt, sugar and little nutritional value, such as potato chips and sugar-sweetened beverages.
For a woman on a weight-loss diet, a healthy snack should pack a nutritional wallop without breaking the calorie bank. "Since women on a weight-loss programme only have a limited number of calories to spend each day, it is important for them to incorporate nutrient-dense foods that are no more than 200 calories per serving," McTiernan said. "The best snacks for a weight-loss programme are proteins such as low-fat yoghurt, string cheese, or a small handful of nuts; non-starchy vegetables; fresh fruits; whole-grain crackers; and non-calorie beverages such as water, coffee and tea."
The National Cancer Institute funded the research and participated in the study, which also involved investigators from the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Chicago. – (EurekAlert!)
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