Is it time to quit snacking?

Between-meal eating has been promoted as a way to stay fit, but we might have it all wrong.

With scores of health buffs lauding their diet of six small meals a day—and nutritionists espousing the idea that near-constant feeding stokes the metabolism—Americans are snacking like never before: From 2006 to 2008, the time people spent eating outside of breakfast, lunch and dinner doubled from 15 to 30 minutes, and in 2008 almost two-thirds of adults snacked two or more times daily, contributing an average of 24% of total daily calories.

But is snacking really the healthiest way to maintain your weight—let alone nudge the needle on the scale? Not necessarily, according to Mariane Heroux, a fitness coach and kinesiology Ph.D at Precision Nutrition, and Jaclyn London, R.D., of New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital. While there’s evidence that snacking helps some people regulate their weight, there’s just as much that ties snacking to weight gain.

Here, the experts myth-bust to help you decide whether snacking’s right for you:

The claim: Snackers are more in tune with hunger cues.
The truth:“When people have it in their minds to eat five to seven meals throughout the day, they will find themselves hungry at snack times," Heroux says. "But that’s an emotional hunger, not a physiological one." To determine whether a snack-time stomach pang is real hunger—and not the manifestation of something like boredom, nerves or anger—Heroux recommends sitting with it. Have a glass of water and wait ten minutes. If you still feel hungry, eat something until you’re 80 percent full (“This means you can do 20 jumping jacks after eating without wanting to vomit,” Heroux says).

The claim:
Snacking helps you lose weight.
The truth:Women dieters who snacked between breakfast and lunch lost less weight than those who didn’t in a 2011 study led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “To me, this shows that snacking can become a habit independent of hunger,” London says. “You can easily eat a few hundred extra calories without thinking—not because you’re hungry, but because you did so the day before.”

The claim:
Snacking stokes the metabolism.
The truth: “People forget that there’s a huge element of individuality to nutrition,” says Heroux. “While one person’s metabolism might thrive on five meals a day, another’s might do better with three. It takes experimenting and tuning into your own hunger to figure out what's best for you.” Adds London: “Meals stoke the metabolism as much as snacks do. From a metabolic perspective, you’ll only run into problems if you’re restricting and bingeing.”

The claim:
Snacking keeps you from overeating at meals.
The truth: A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2011 showed that most snackers don’t eat less at meals. “Overeating at mealtimes depends on the quality of the snack,” London says. “If the snack is pretzels, you might be tempted go all out at dinner. If it’s whole-grain crackers and a tablespoon of almond butter, you're more likely to feel more satisfied—and less tempted by dessert.” Both London and Heroux say that those who choose to snack should ensure they eat both protein and fiber at every sitting.