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License to Snack

Common diet lore says to snack throughout the day to manage weight. But has America taken it too far?

| July 5th, 2011
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License to Snack

What's the one thing every American can do at home on their couch, in front of their computer at work or sitting on a public bench?

Eat.

On-the-go snacking has not only become a necessity for a fast-paced life, it's also evolved into yet another tactic in the battle against the bulge.

Some research suggests that snacking throughout the day compared to eating three square meals can help the body burn up to 10 percent more calories by keeping metabolism revved and blood sugar stabilized. Also, so many dieticians and nutritionists have recommended snacking as a way to prevent binge eating that it’s become as common of advice as eating breakfast every day.

But in this snack-happy world where grazing allegedly helps with weight loss, a new study has found that America's license to snack may not only inadvertently dash dieters' dreams but also be contributing to a rise in obesity.

MORE: Overcome Obesity with New Food Habits

Has America’s collective snacking gotten completely out of control?

According to findings published by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researchers, Americans are not only eating more now than they were 30 years ago, but they're also eating more often. From 1977 to 2006, calorie consumption has shot up by a whopping 570 calories per day—approximately the caloric equivalent of a Wendy's Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger (350 cal.) and a small Frosty (250 cal.).

"Eating constantly is a lot easier than it used to be," said Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D., co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Center. "Food is packaged more like snacks, as something quick on-the-go. And when you're eating throughout the day it's easier to lose track of how many calories you've consumed."

One of the biggest issues also seems to be the perception of what constitutes a meal, which varies for everyone, said Kristen Kirkpatrick, R.D., YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor. And while it may be true that small meals throughout the day can help prevent the body from going on a blood sugar rollercoaster, it's less about when you eat and more about what you eat.

"You can eat three square meals a day or five smaller meals, but not five square meals," said Kirkpatrick.

Listening to your body is the best way to judge what kind of eating schedule will work for you. Whether you enjoy taking the time to sit down for a full meal or prefer nibbling throughout the day, what's key is ensuring you maintain a well-balanced diet.

DISCUSS: Office Snacks

"It's about quality, not quantity," said Kirkpatrick. "The goal is to control your food choices and get as many nutrients in your body as possible." Consuming snacks high in salt or refined sugar, like potato chips, pretzels or candy, instead of reaching for an apple or yogurt can cause spikes and dips in insulin, which can make you hungrier sooner and set you up to constantly grab for food, Kirkpatrick said. 

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