Eating between meals can be a good idea

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Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDM

Q: I’m confused by conflicting advice about whether snacking helps or hurts weight control and health. What do you suggest?

A: Snacks can promote good health when you choose foods that fill nutritional gaps. For example, if you have trouble including enough fruit, dietary fiber and calcium-rich foods (such as dairy products and soymilk) in your meals, snacks offer a great chance to do so.

However, for many people, “snack food” means food low in nutrients and concentrated in calories. For weight control the key point seems to be how snacking affects total calorie consumption.

If you’re not hungry between meals, there’s no reason to eat more than three times a day. Research does show though, that eating less than three times a day seems to make appetite control for weight management more difficult.

And eating more than six times a day makes it difficult to keep calories low enough to support a healthy weight except for athletes with extremely high calorie needs. However, within the range of eating three to six times a day, impact on weight varies.

Controlled studies do not support the idea that more frequent eating will boost metabolism so you burn more calories, as is often claimed. But some people find that snacks help them control their appetite better and avoid overeating at the next meal. For example, a snack can prevent or resolve cravings that can stem from low blood sugar, especially among obese people.

If you snack when you are hungry and choose foods and portions that keep total calories appropriate for your needs, it may help weight control.

Depending on how active you are, whether you’re trying to change or maintain weight, and whether you snack once or three times a day, for typical adults a healthy snack may be 100 to 250 calories.

That’s a target easily exceeded by typical snacks and sugary or other high calorie drinks. Instead, if you snack, choose lower calorie, nutrient-rich foods such as whole fruit, a small handful of nuts, or a half sandwich that can fill and fuel you for several hours.

Q: Can cooking with more herbs and spices really add a significant amount of antioxidants to food?

A: Yes. Research has shown for some time that herbs and spices are concentrated sources of natural compounds that are strong antioxidants.

Now a small preliminary study shows that blood antioxidant levels increased after people ate a meal with large amounts of added herbs and spices. This study used a mixture of rosemary, oregano, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, garlic, paprika and turmeric. These herbs and spices are among those with the most research documenting the content of their protective compounds.

The amount of herbs and spices added up to more than six teaspoons per person, which is substantially more than most of us typically use in cooking, but it did not reduce enjoyment of the meal’s flavor.

And as an additional benefit, blood triglycerides and insulin increased less following the meal with herbs and spices than following the same meal without these flavorings.

Other research shows that cooking meat with even a small amount of rosemary or turmeric can reduce formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are linked to colon cancer. And cooking with a spice blend can reduce formation in meat of a compound believed to damage blood vessel walls and DNA.

Antioxidant content of some fresh herbs may decrease when they are dried, but analysis shows that dried herbs generally remain excellent source of antioxidant compounds.

The American Institute for Cancer Research offers a Nutrition Hotline, 1-800- 843-8114, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.

Courtesy of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Questions for this column may be sent to “Nutrition Wise,” 1759 R St., N.W., Washington, DC 20009.  Collins cannot respond to questions personally.