Both, depending on what you choose. Skipping meals, eating a large dinner, or not snacking between meals sends a “feast-and-famine” signal to the body and encourages it to store more calories as fat. In contrast, dividing the same amount of calories into five or more little meals and snacks and eating at least every 4 to 5 hours encourages the body to “burn” the food for immediate energy. A healthful snack also curbs hunger and helps prevent overeating later in the day. A study from the University of Minnesota found that people who divided their calories into little meals and snacks lost more weight and more fat weight than did women who ate the same calories as three square meals. Thus, nibblers are more likely to maintain a desirable weight and ample fuel supply for exercise compared to the 3-meals-a-day gorgers.
Nibbling also lowers cholesterol and the risk for heart disease and diabetes. Studies from the University of Toronto found that nibblers had a 13.5% lower level of LDL-cholesterol and a 17% lower risk for heart disease. Diabetes risk also was reduced. The researchers concluded that three meals a day are better than one and eight mini-meals and snacks are better than three.
While the health benefits of snacking give us the go-ahead to graze, that is not a license to eat junk. Up to 26% of our calories come from snacks, which means that snacks should supply at least 26% of our vitamin, mineral, and fiber needs, while remaining low in fat, sugar, cholesterol, and salt. Think of snacks as little meals. They should be based on real foods, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat milk products or soymilk, and extra-lean meats.
With that in mind, the #1 rule for healthful snacking is to keep it simple. A nutritious snack should be convenient, readily available, take little time to prepare, and taste great.
The second snacking rule is to plan ahead by bringing healthful snacks with you, such as:
Baby carrots and low-fat dip
Craisins and nuts
Low-fat custard-style yogurt topped with a dollop of light whipped cream
Hummus and whole wheat pita bread
Slice of date-nut bread topped with fat-free cream cheese and diced dates
Dried plums each stuffed with an almond
Cup of warmed nonfat milk flavored with almond extract and two whole wheat fig bars
Salsa and baked tortilla chips