To snack, or not to snack. That is the question. While this question is a much lighter subject than the one Hamlet contemplates in Shakespeare’s play, it certainly is still a worthy one. The answer to this question is the same as the answer to most nutrition questions: It depends. While we are all similar in many respects, our body chemistries and physiologies are truly unique. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. This is why there is not one diet that is good for everyone. Snacking can have many benefits for certain people, while others will likely benefit by limiting snacking and sticking to larger, less frequent meals during the day.

First, when you think of the word snack, what comes to mind? A bag of chips or a cookie? Or an apple with a handful of nuts? Many associate the word snack with a treat, usually something with lots of added sugar or salt and refined flour, such as a piece of cake, a doughnut, or a bag of chips. In this article, the word snack is referring to nutrient-dense whole foods, but in smaller portions as compared to a meal. Examples of healthy snacks are reviewed later in the article.

Reasons to snack

There are many sound reasons to snack. Snacking is especially important for anyone in a period of growth, including children, teens, young adults, pregnant women, and athletes. For these individuals, the demands placed on the body require a steady stream of nutrients and calories, which may not all fit into three squares a day.

Satisfying hunger is another — perhaps obvious — reason to snack. However, before you start eating, do take a moment to ask yourself if you are truly hungry, or if you are reaching for food out of boredom or listlessness? If you still feel you are hungry, ask yourself if you can wait until the next meal. If not, then eat that snack, as long as it is a healthy one.

For those who are going through unintended weight loss or are having trouble keeping weight on, snacking can certainly help, especially if total calories are increased as a result. Cancer cachexia, severe nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, and inflammatory bowel disease are all examples in which snacking may help. Others simply cannot eat enough at one sitting; spreading out food into many smaller meals over the course of a day can make getting enough food much easier. Those with hypoglycemia or those on diabetes medications to lower blood sugar may also need to eat more frequently to prevent dangerously low dips in blood sugar.

Reasons to avoid snacking

For those trying to lose weight, some studies suggest that snacking hampers weight loss. Unless a snack is made entirely of fat, it will increase blood sugar and therefore insulin, a fat-storing hormone. Carbohydrates and, to a lesser degree, protein, increase insulin. It is normal for insulin to increase after a meal, but it then should decrease until the next meal is eaten. Those who snack repeatedly throughout the day will likely keep insulin elevated, thereby hampering weight loss. Snacking also clearly adds calories.

Snacking also keeps food in the stomach for longer periods of the day. While our digestive systems are designed to digest food, the digestive organs also benefit from periods of rest. Constant grazing also hampers an aspect of healthy digestive function called the Migrating Motor Complex. The MMC is a cyclic, recurring motility pattern that starts in the stomach and moves down through the small intestine during periods of fasting. It can take three hours or so for food to leave the stomach. Once the stomach is empty, these cleansing waves help push food through the small intestine and into the colon. One wave happens every 90 minutes or so. This activity has been likened to the “dishwasher of the small intestine.” Not having an MMC can increase one’s risk of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and other health conditions.

Lastly, snacking can also interfere with intermittent fasting, which studies are showing can be beneficial to many aspects of health. This will be discussed in a future article.

For those who need a healthy snack, what are some options? They sky is the limit. Any dish can be eaten as a snack, including last night’s dinner leftovers. Pairing raw vegetables with a healthy protein is another good choice: Slices of raw carrots, cucumbers, peppers, radishes, or turnips pair nicely with grass-fed beef jerky, pemmican, hard-boiled eggs, canned wild-caught fish, cheese wedges, bean dips, or a handful of nuts or seeds. Plain, unsweetened yogurt or Greek-style yogurt topped with fresh or frozen berries and nuts or seeds is another healthy option. To get fancy, you can soak the yogurt with chia seeds ahead of time to turn into a pudding. There are many more options out there. Don’t hesitate to try something new!

If you would like your nutrition question answered, please send it to the email below.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.