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.

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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.

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“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.

At the end of the day, losing weight and maintaining a healthy diet is all about portion control and making smart food choices. But no matter what kind of eater you are, there are a few best practices to follow to keep your waistline trim and hunger at bay:

  • Eat a well-balanced breakfast within one hour of waking to jumpstart your metabolism. A good breakfast may include lean protein with a healthy fat, such as peanut butter, egg whites or low-fat milk, fresh fruit or vegetables and whole grains.
  • If you’re a grazer, avoid prepackaged snacks that may contain added refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, maple syrup and brown rice syrup, which cause blood sugar fluctuations, can result in weight gain and may put you at an increased risk for high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
  • If you prefer three square meals a day, schedule meals four to five hours apart and don’t force yourself to eat a large amount at one time. If you snack between meals, choose fresh fruit and vegetables, such as an apple or carrot sticks, 100 percent whole grains crackers or lean protein snacks, such as nuts or string cheese.
  • Most importantly, eat only when hungry and listen to your body to signal when it’s full.