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Friday, June 27, 2014

Can Snacking Help or Hinder Fat Loss & Muscle Building?

Boring apple picture
The Paleo nut butter cookies became my undoing. My first bite felt totally innocent and in-control. I simply wanted to be polite and sample my coworker’s newest healthy dessert, knowing full well I would like but not love it.

Even though I’m a chocolate girl, dang was that cookie good. So good in fact that one polite bite gave way to the whole cookie, and I found myself semi-consciously reaching for a second.

I wasn’t hungry. I ate a chicken Caesar salad with half an avocado just two hours before. Yet here I was, shoveling down cookies like I was trying to win a Coney Island hot dog-eating contest.

On my drive home that night, I pondered why I’d reached for that second cookie. What I learned revealed why so many of us habitually snack. Hint: Hunger isn’t among those reasons.

A Contentious Debate Among Nutrition and Fitness Folks
Nutrition and fitness camps firmly divide on the snacking issue. On the one hand are the “mini-mealers,” as I call them: Eat every two to three hours to stabilize blood sugar and all that.

On the other are folks like my friend JJ Virgin, who argues every time you eat, you raise insulin, which stores fat. Constantly grazing ramps up insulin, preventing fat from being released and broken down. She recommends three solid meals with one or no snacks for fat loss.

I’m firmly in JJ’s camp here, because I know from past experience how an innocent late-morning few bites of something sweet to tide you over till lunch becomes a downward spiral that ends around 11:30 in an empty pint of butter pecan.

At the same time, I’m a realist. I know you’ll have days where you eat lunch correctly and come 3 p.m., a particular craving will hit you, and that craving won’t be for wild salmon if you catch my drift.

Sometimes you’re going to snack, and that’s perfectly fine as long as you snack intelligently. But before you reach for that Paleo cookie or raw almonds or whatever your poison might be, consider why you snack.

What Does Science Say about Snacking?
I’m a science person, and when I feel confused about a certain issue, I jump on PubMed to see what studies conclude.

I wish I could say the latest science cleared up my questions about snacking, but truthfully, snacking studies are all over the map regarding weight loss, appetite control, and optimal health. If you don’t believe me, here’s a brief sampling:

·        One study found nighttime snacking inhibited fat loss and increased obesity risk in healthy young women. 
·        Another study found that, depending on what participants consumed, snacking could become an efficient way to add more fruits and vegetables or, if you eat junk, impede fat loss. “Future dietary weight-loss interventions should evaluate the effects of timing, frequency, and quality of snacks on weight loss,” researchers concluded. 
·        But wait. One study found normal-weight and weight-loss maintainer folks ate more snacks than overweight folks. “Eating frequency, particularly in regard to a pattern of three meals and two snacks per day, may be important in weight loss maintenance,” researchers concluded. 
·        A random trial concluded whether you snacked or not really didn’t affect fat loss. “Snackers and nonsnackers responded equally well whether they received a standard meal replacement program or one augmented with snacks,” researchers said. 
Well, that settles that. Not.

Snacking Rarely Involves Hunger
Science wasn’t going to solve my snacking debate, so I dug a little deeper. Never mind whether to snack or not. Why do we feel the need to do snack in the first place, especially when we’re not hungry?

Back to my Paleo nut butter cookie debacle: I took that first bite out of politeness, but then something overcame me. I had had a particularly rough morning: A fight with my boyfriend and then a particularly demanding client. I needed something to assuage those feelings, and that monk fruit-sweetened cookie did a really good job momentarily.

We often snack out of boredom or frustration or depression or a million other feelings. Habit also comes into play. That initial occasional indulgence becomes an everyday dependence.

We all have one. It might be an afternoon dark roast, a few glasses of wine after dinner, or a favorite protein bar. Suddenly, life doesn’t feel complete without this seemingly innocuous indulgence, until one day it isn’t available, you suddenly feel lost and incomplete, and you realize that occasional indulgence has become an uncontrollable craving.

Without getting all Dr. Phil on you, the next time you reach for some sugary concoction that will provide brief momentary pleasure but ultimately could create more harm than good, ask yourself what’s really going on.

Do you really need that snack? If you’re absolutely certain you do, skip on. But also consider whether these things might provide similarly gratifying alternatives:

·       A glass of water (cravings and hunger are sometimes thirst in disguise)
·       Brushing your teeth
·       Calling a friend or loved one and talk
·       Walking your dog
·       Having sex with your partner or yourself (yes, I did just say that; orgasm reduces stress among other things)
·       Taking a 20-minute nap

If you’re convinced these aren’t acceptable alternatives – and I mean, really, you would take a handful of almonds or a Paleo brownie over sex? – at least do it smartly. Here’s how.

Snacking Strategy #1: Plan Your Meals Intelligently
Every meal should contain protein, healthy fats, and plenty of antioxidant-rich, high-fiber foods.

You can create a big-‘ol protein shake for breakfast that keeps you full for hours. A big salad topped with avocado and turkey and drizzled with olive oil and vinegar for lunch is perfect. Dinner might be a grass-fed steak with a few green veggies and half a sweet potato.

When you eat enough of these foods so you’re full but not stuffed, you steady your blood sugar levels. You have more energy. You don’t get the big crash a big bowl of pasta can create. All bets are you’ll have less of an urge to snack.  

Snacking Strategy #2: Quality Counts
A hundred calories of almonds will create a far different effect than 100 calories of tiny chocolate chip cookies. The former come loaded with protein, healthy fat, fiber, and nutrients to stabilize blood sugar and keep you full for hours. The cookies come with… Well, not much other than sugar and crapola ingredients.

One study found unlike empty-carbohydrate foods like pretzels, portioned-controlled pistachio nuts help folks “lose weight without concern that pistachios will cause weight gain.”  Sorry researchers, but this might be the most “duh” study ever, but it substantiates my point that quality matters.

What constitutes quality snacks? These are among my favorites:

·       Hard-boiled eggs
·       Grass-fed, nitrate-free beef jerky
·       Sliced turkey with avocado
·       Kale chips with guacamole
·       Nuts and seeds
·       Nut butter with sliced apples (especially the Granny Smith variety) or celery
·       Dark chocolate (at least 75% cacao and no more than six grams of sugar per serving; easy does it here!)
·       Jinifit approved protein bars

Strategy #3: Quantity Counts Too
Considering the reasons we snack – boredom, stress, instant gratification – overeating even nutrient-dense, high-quality foods can become a problem when you overeat them.

I had a friend who always stuck with a low-carb diet yet couldn’t overcome a plateau. I quickly nailed his problem: He mindlessly munched on big cans of roasted almonds throughout the afternoon while he worked at a stressful desk job.

I don’t care how healthy your snack is; eating too much can become a big problem. If you’re gorging on kale, you can literally eat as much as you want. Otherwise, you’ve got to set limits.

Mindfulness often comes into play here. The crunchy, salty, or sugary rush of snacking can become like pleasant background music while you’re working or otherwise occupied, and like my low-carb friend with his almonds, before you know it you’ve devoured the whole can.

If a tablespoon of almond butter becomes half the jar-that has happened with me, (full confession), portion snacks into containers or Ziploc bags and put the rest away. Don’t come unhinged and let a healthy snack become your undoing.

Snacking Questions
I probably get more snack questions from social media readers and clients than any other topic, so I’ve addressed my most-asked questions below.

I lift heavy three times a week and find I’m especially hungry on workout days. Can I snack more on those days?
If you’re lifting heavy or otherwise maintain a rigorous workout schedule, make sure you eat enough during meals. Yes, you also have a little more leeway with snacking, especially around workouts. That doesn’t give you permission to nose-dive into a box of donuts, but optimal fuel can keep you from crashing mid-workout, give you that extra boost, and aid post-workout recovery.

What if I’ve been “good” all week, ate clean, worked my butt off at the gym, blah blah blah. Can I have a [fill in your favorite sweet] without creating damage?
Get back on the horse immediately after your indulgence and you’re golden. Let that indulgence become a slippery slope into an all-weekend carb-fest and you’re gonna regret it. Know thyself.

My friend told me eating a snack before bedtime would preserve muscle and help me sleep better.
Make sure you do dinner correctly. If you eat at 7 p.m. and find yourself hungry at 11, you either didn’t eat enough at dinner or you need to move your dinner close to bedtime. Ideally, you want to stop eating about three hours before bedtime. Everyone’s unique, and I’ve met a few people who do a protein shake before bed and feel better rested the following morning. See what works for you, but that doesn’t give you permission to dive into the Chunky Monkey at 11 p.m.

Why do you dislike those 100-calorie packs so much? I love the portion control.
Most of those snack packs are simply sugar with few nutrients. The “100 calorie” claim creates a halo effect that you’re somehow doing something healthy. All you’re doing is raising your blood sugar, which raises insulin, which ultimately can encourage fat storage. If you want to make your own 100-calorie snack packs, portion out nuts into Ziploc bags.

What do you think about [particular brand of “healthy” snack]? It says on their website they are “nutritionist approved.”
Well, this nutritionist didn’t approve them, and I don’t know any nutritionist who would. Read the fine print. Some of these snacks are probably okay, but many contain massive amounts of sugar. Some manufacturers will get sneaky and create two or three servings per tiny bag or container, so you’re actually eating far more sugar and calories than you realize. Nature made the best snacks with nuts and seeds, so stick with them.

Your Turn

Do you snack or not? What burning snacking questions do you have? Share yours in the comments below or on my Facebook fan page.


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