It could well be that it’s your well-meaning little-and-often grazing habit that’s contributing to your ill health, says expert Karen Geary
Snacking has become a common habit for many people, especially those trying to lose weight; it’s often believed that eating ‘little and often’ helps keep blood sugar stable. However, counter-research suggests that cutting out snacks may actually be more beneficial for weight loss, insulin control and gut health.
One reason cutting out snacks can aid in weight loss – aside from consuming less calories – is related to improved insulin control. Insulin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar levels. When we eat, our body releases insulin to help move glucose (sugar) from our bloodstream into our cells, where it can be used for energy.
However, if we constantly graze on food, we are continuously stimulating the body and triggering an insulin response. Elevated insulin levels tell the body to store excess glucose as glycogen for later use – and that surplus is stored as fat.
Not all snacks are equal
It doesn’t help that many of the most popular snacks, like crisps and biscuits, are high in sugar and unhealthy fats. Consuming these regularly not only adds empty calories, it can also lead to an inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation increases the risk of developing chronic diseases and may contribute to insulin resistance and impaired glucose metabolism – both risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
Furthermore, research suggests that snacking on unhealthy foods may disrupt the balance of bacteria in our gut, potentially leading to other health problems.
However, it’s important to note that not all snacking is harmful. Snacking on fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts can provide important nutrients and actively support overall health.
Breaking the habit
To understand why we snack, it’s helpful to look at the work of James Clear, who has written extensively about habits. He suggests they are formed through a process called The Habit Loop, which consists of three stages: cue, routine, reward.
The cue is the trigger that prompts us to engage in a particular habit. For snacking, cues can be anything from seeing a bag of crisps on the counter to feeling bored or stressed. My personal cue is simply walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge door. When we encounter a cue, our brain automatically enters ‘habit mode’, urging us to engage in the routine of snacking in order to receive the reward – which could be pleasure or simply relief from stress.
To break the habit of snacking, it’s important to identify the cues that trigger the habit in the first place. This may involve keeping a food diary or simply paying attention to the situations or emotions that lead us to snack. Once we have identified our cues, we can start experimenting with different routines that provide an equivalent reward. For example, if you tend to snack when feeling stressed, try going for a walk or doing some deep breathing exercises instead.
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is a device implanted on the upper arm that provides continuous information on blood glucose levels. Recently, there has been some backlash against using CGMs in healthy individuals. However, I disagree. CGMs empower us to observe the effects of food on our glucose levels (a good proxy for insulin response) and then to make adjustments to lower our average. I feel it’s better to be proactive than it is to fall into metabolic dysfunction and eventually develop type 2 diabetes. My clients typically take about a month to understand what works for them and how to adjust their eating accordingly. Snacking is one of the common adjustments, as the time between meals lowers blood glucose for a sustained period.
Cutting out snacks can be a beneficial strategy for weight loss, for improved insulin management and even potentially for overall gut health. To break the habit of snacking, it’s important to identify the cues that trigger the habit and then to just experiment with alternative routines to find something that works for you.