Many snack foods are unhealthy and easy to overeat.
In many cases, snack foods may contribute to the development of obesity. But does snacking itself affect body weight?
A recent review shows that cutting down on snacks may be as effective as popular weight loss supplements like Garcinia Cambodia. Below is an overview of its main points.
This review discussed how snacking affects satiety and body weight.
What Are Snacks?
Snacks are any foods that are eaten between meals.
They often are ready-to-eat and do not require much preparation. These commonly include candy, chips, crackers, cookies, granola bars, nuts and popcorn.
Although beverages are usually not considered snack foods, they are consumed along with snack foods.
In this review, we place beverages under the broad definition of snack foods.
Bottom Line: Snacking is the act of consuming foods or beverages between meals.
Does Snacking Increase Weight Gain?
The increased popularity of snacking goes hand in hand with increased screen time (watching TV and playing computer games) and less physical activity.
For these reasons, unhealthy snacking often contributes to weight gain.
Bottom Line: Snacking may be largely responsible for weight gain among many people.
Is Snacking Healthy?
Unhealthy snacks include candy, chips, cookies and sugary beverages. Healthy snacks may include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
That said, any snacks are unhealthy when snacking goes out of hand and starts contributing to excessive weight gain.
Studies also suggest that irregular eating habits, often associated with snacking, may adversely affect health.
Bottom Line: Healthy snacks can be very nutritious. However, snacking is unhealthy when it gets out of hand or involves unhealthy food.
What Factors Affect Snacking?
Snacking is affected by a variety of factors.
The following factors have been associated with snacking behavior:
- Poor education: One study showed that snacking was more common among those from poorly educated families (8).
- Knowledge: Being able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy snacks affects food choice (9).
- Emotional eating: Some people respond to negative emotions by eating, especially high-sugar, high-fat snacks (10).
- Stress: Anxiety causes some people to snack, especially emotional eaters (10).
- Family norms: One study showed that having strict parents reduced snacking among children (11).
- Social norms: When young adults were led to believe that limiting junk foods was the social norm, their intake of high-calorie snacks decreased (12).
- Availability: Limited access to healthy snacks affects intake (13).
- Packaging: Bigger package sizes encourage overeating, regardless of people’s appetite or the taste of the snack (14).
- Distractions: Mindful eating reduces snack intake, whereas distractions (like watching TV or playing a video game) increases it (15).
- Variety: Having a wide variety of snacks to choose from can promote overeating (16, 17).
Bottom Line: Numerous factors influence snacking behavior, including how often people snack, when they do it and how much they eat.
How Do Snacks Affect Appetite?
Some researchers have speculated that eating snacks might promote fullness or satiety, thus reducing the risk of overeating at the next meal (18).
One study found that snacks are generally not very filling. However, of all the snacks evaluated, those with the highest protein content were the most satiating (19).
Another study found that a high-protein afternoon snack delayed the need for dinner, compared to high-fat or high-carb snacks. In fact, the high-carb snack did not delay dinner at all (20).
High-protein snacks that may suppress appetite include:
Snacks that are high in fiber may also promote fullness, compared to low-fiber snacks. Popcorn is a good example of a common high-fiber snack food.
Additionally, low-fat (air popped) popcorn is significantly more satiating compared to an equal amount of potato chips (25).
Bottom Line: Snack foods that are high in protein and/or fiber may reduce appetite, compared to other types of snack foods.
Can Snacking Reduce Body Weight?
A few randomized controlled trials have examined how different snack foods affect body weight.
One trial in women showed that snacking on dark chocolate daily reduced body weight and fat mass, compared to fruit-flavored licorice (26).
It appears that people may compensate for snacking by eating less food at meals. However, the calorie compensation is often only partial, and regular snacking may lead to weight gain over time (30, 31).
Additionally, not all snacks are equal. One study showed that eating nut-based snack bars for 3 months reduced body fat and abdominal fat in overweight people, compared to a cereal snack bar (32).
Observational studies have also provided mixed results. Some studies showed no significant links between snack foods and weight or body weight (7).
In general, it seems that snacking on calorie-dense, low-nutrient foods may promote weight gain. This especially applies to sugary soda.
That said, it is still unclear whether traditional snack foods reduce body weight, compared to not snacking. At this point, it seems unlikely.
Bottom Line: There is limited evidence that snack foods reduce body weight. In contrast, high-calorie snack foods may promote weight gain.
Summary and Real-Life Application
Taken together, studies investigating the effects of snack foods on body weight provide mixed results.
In general, high-calorie snack foods are believed to promote obesity, especially sugary soda. In contrast, people seem to partially compensate for consuming healthy snacks by eating less at the next meal.
Overall, there’s limited evidence that traditional snack foods lead to weight loss.