By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
Eating lots of nuts and fruits is associated with reduced risk for diabetes and heart attacks (Nutr J, March 5, 2016;15(1):23). Nuts are low in absorbable calories and provide many essential nutrients (Nutrients, 2015 Jan 15;7(1):595-607). People who snack regularly on nuts have fewer blood markers for diabetes and arteriosclerosis than the general population (Nutr Res, March 2012;32(3):185-94).
Snacking for Exercisers and Athletes
Every time you exercise vigorously, you deplete your muscles and liver of their meager stores of sugar. To recover from vigorous exercise, you need to replenish liver and muscle sugar, so a snack soon after you finish your workout will help you recover faster. Fruit is a good source of sugar while nuts and snack seeds provide protein for your muscles. It doesn’t make any difference how often you eat as long as you eat enough food to replenish your used-up sugar stores and rebuild muscles that have been damaged by hard exercise.
However, if you are restricting calories to lose weight or control your weight, eating smaller, more frequent meals will help you recover better. Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan studied male boxers and had them consume only 1,200 calories a day while dieting to lose weight so they could fight in a lower weight class. Half of the participants consumed six meals a day, while the other half consumed two meals a day. After two weeks, there was greater muscle retention in the group that ate six meals a day (Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 1996;6(5):265-272).
Snacking Does Not Lower Metabolism
What you eat affects weight gain far more than how often you eat (Physiol Behav, July 2014;134:38-43). Many studies show that snacking does not cause people to gain weight (Nutrition Reviews, 2015;73(2):69-82), but snacking does not change the number of calories you burn each day (Biochimie, July 29, 2015). Weight-loss plans based on eating frequent smaller meals often cite the unproven theory that eating frequently increases metabolism (J Nutr, 2011;141(1):154-157), but if you take in the same number of calories, it makes no difference how many times you eat in a day (Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 2001;25(4):519-528). No difference in metabolic rate was seen between eating two or seven times a day (British Journal of Nutrition, 1993;70(01):103-115).
- It makes no difference how often you eat as long as you are eating enough to meet your needs and not eating too much so that you gain weight.
- If you want to snack throughout the day, by all means do so. However, the rules for healthful eating apply to snacks as well as to meals. The best choices for snacks (and regular meals) are vegetables, fruits and seeds, including nuts, whole grains, beans and snack seeds. Restrict red meat, processed meats, fried foods, sugar-added foods, sugar-added drinks and fruit juices.
- If you are overweight, prediabetic or diabetic, have heart trouble, have bad LDL cholesterol over 100 or triglycerides over 150, you should also avoid refined carbohydrates such as bakery products and pastas, packaged snacks made with flour and breakfast cereals made from refined grains.
- If you want to lose weight, I recommend intermittent fasting. There are many variations of intermittent fasting, but the one I use includes snacking on nuts, vegetables and fruits.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe's full bio.