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Snacking Before Lunch May Sabotage Your Diet

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Updated: 1/30/2012 4:29 pm

Nov. 30, 2011 -- Women hear this: Grabbing a snack between breakfast and lunch may sabotage your weight loss efforts.

New research shows that older female dieters who have a mid-morning snack lose less weight than their counterparts who ate a healthy breakfast and don’t snack in the a.m. 

The new findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study included 123 overweight-to-obese women aged 50 to 75. They ate a 1,200-2,000 calorie-per-day diet with less than 30% of calories coming from fat or a similar diet, combined with at least 45 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. Nutritional counseling was part of the study, but did not address snacks and snacking. The findings are part of a larger study looking at how nutrition and exercise affects risk for breast cancer.

Mid-morning snackers lost 7% of their body weight over the course of one year. By contrast, dieters who ate a healthy breakfast but did not snack before lunch lost more than 11% of their body weight during the study. In the study, snacks were defined as any food or beverage consumed between meals.

"We think this finding may not relate necessarily to the time of day one snacks, but rather to the short interval between breakfast and lunch," says study researcher Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD. She is the director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Public Health Sciences Division in Seattle. "Mid-morning snacking therefore might be a reflection of recreational or mindless eating habits rather than eating to satisfy true hunger," she says in a news release.

Study Findings

Mid-morning snackers were found to be more likely to report snacking more than once a day compared to those who ate afternoon or late-evening snacks.

The study also revealed some other insights about snackers and snacking. For one, women who had more than two snacks per day ate more fiber than those who ate fewer snacks. What’s more, women who snacked more in the afternoon chose fruits and vegetables more often than women who did not snack between lunch and dinner.

"Since women on a weight loss program only have a limited number of calories to spend each day, it is important for them to incorporate nutrient-dense foods that are no more than 200 calories per serving," McTiernan says. Some of the best snacks for a weight loss program include low-fat yogurt, string cheese, a small handful of nuts, and/or fresh fruit.

"Snacking can be a part of a healthful eating plan if people focus on the foods they choose to snack on and that the snacks represent fueling between meals and not absent-minded grabbing," Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, says in an email. She is the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "The fact that morning snackers did not lose as much is intriguing, but could be a function of a variety of factors, including eating when not really hungry, poor food choices, or just an overall slower weight loss."

Avoid Random Snacking

Not all snacks and snackers are the same when it comes to weight gain.

Think before you snack. "If you are going to eat a snack, compensate by eating less during meals," says Richard D. Mattes, PhD, a professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Sheah Rarback, RD, a nutritionist at the Miller School of Medicine of the University of Miami, says why you snack and what you choose to snack on are important variables. When you reach for a snack, "it is really important to make sure you are eating because you are hungry and not just bored," she says. "If you are not hungry, you don’t have to snack just because it is there." The flip side is also true: "If you are hungry and need a snack, you don’t have to make an impulsive poor choice."

Breakfast choice also matters. In the study, mid-morning snackers may have had a purely carbohydrate breakfast, leading to hunger pangs mid-morning, Rarback says. Choosing a breakfast that includes protein will leave you feeling satisfied longer, she says.

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