Is Snacking Good or Bad?

Get tips on how to snack without sabotaging your diet or nutrition.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #141

Although our grandparents and great-grandparents typically ate three meals a day, today we eat five times a day, on average. And although it’s often claimed that eating more often can help you control your weight, it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. 

Is Snacking Good or Bad?

As the average number of meals and snacks has increased, so have our waistlines—and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.  Today, I’ll have some tips on how to snack without sabotaging your diet or your nutrition.

Tip #1: Snacking is Optional

First off, rest assured that snacking is completely optional.  Contrary to an oft-repeated nutrition myth, eating more frequently does not bump up your metabolism or cause you to burn more calories.  Although it is true that your metabolism may slow down if you go too long without eating, this effect takes two or three days to kick in, not two or three hours.

If you tend to get very hungry between meals, eating more frequently may be a good solution for you—and in a moment, I’ll have some tips on how to do that in a healthy way. But if you don’t get hungry between meals, there’s no reason you need to take time out every two or three hours for a snack. 

How to Stop Being Hungry

If you do get hungry between meals but find it difficult to arrange your schedule to accommodate a meal break every two or three hours, there’s another solution:  Eat bigger meals.

I think one reason that people (especially women) get so hungry between meals is that they make their meals unrealistically small.  Let’s say that you need 2,000 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight.  And let’s say that you eat a 200-calorie breakfast. Logically, this should get you through about 10% of your day…or about two hours.  If you’re trying to make it five hours until lunch time, you’d want to eat more like 400 or 500 calories for breakfast.

It also helps if your meals are balanced and nutritious, containing protein, healthy fats, and slow-burning carbohydrates, such as those you get from whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

Related content: How to Eat Less Without Feeling Hungry

Tip #2: The More Often You Eat, the Smaller Your Meals Need to Be

There is a big contingent of diet experts claiming that you’ll lose more weight if you eat small, frequent meals than if you eat two or three larger meals.  Aside from the false notion that this revs up your metabolism, the argument is that that eating more frequently controls hunger better and that keeps people from overeating.

In terms of weight management, the most important part of the “small frequent meal” concept is not the word “frequent” but the word “small.”

It is true that, when people are restricting their calorie intake, they are more likely to feel hunger. It’s also true that dividing a limited calorie allowance into smaller, more frequent meals can reduce those feelings of hunger.  However, the reality is that the more often people eat, the more calories they tend to consume—and those excess calories confound their attempts to lose or maintain their weight.

This tip may seem obvious, and yet this is where snacking seems to go wrong for most people. In terms of weight management, the most important part of the “small, frequent meal” concept is not the word “frequent” but the word “small.”  That means if you’re going to eat more often, you have to eat less at each meal.  If you’re eating six times a day, for example, each meal has to be approximately half-sized. 


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.