Why Do We Snack? The Science Behind Human Hunger
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The vending machine industry relies on the human urge to snack to stay profitable. However, you might have noticed that it isn’t always hunger driving you to the breakroom for a bag of chips.
Why do people snack? What other factors influence what we eat? Should we all strive for three meals a day or six? Let’s explore the science behind human hunger and whether all that noshing is healthy.
The “3 Meals a Day” Myth
Growing up in American society, you probably thought all humans enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, is it really necessary to eat three meals a day? Should we enjoy more meals than that? Less? What about snacks?
The evidence for how often you should eat is mixed, and different strokes may work best for different folks. One 2012 study in the journal Obesity revealed that people who eat six smaller meals each day experience fewer hunger pangs throughout the day. This research supports the notion that eating smaller meals more often can stabilize blood sugar levels and maintain homeostasis, avoiding drastic weight gain or loss.
However, grazing more frequently won’t result in metabolic improvements, although the myth that frequent meals make you burn calories faster persists. Eating does increase your metabolism slightly, but your body requires the same amount of energy to digest two or three larger meals as it does six smaller ones.
Research on periodic fasting reveals an alternate reality. Research on a small group of prediabetic men divided them into two groups. One division ate between a 12-hour window, while the others reduced theirs, skipping breakfast and containing all food consumption to eight hours. At the study’s conclusion, those who stuck to the 8-hour periodic fasting regimen significantly lowered their blood sugar and improved their insulin sensitivity.
Could it be beneficial to eat fewer than three meals? Mounting evidence suggests that the answer could be yes. For the 88 million Americans who currently have prediabetes, skipping breakfast (or dinner) could be a game-changer in terms of overall health. Going without food allows your insulin levels to drop, decreasing your resistance to this vital regulator.
Nutrition and Chemistry and Blood Sugar, Oh, My
One of the warning signs of diabetes is polyphagia or increased appetite, along with a bump in thirst and urination. Considering the vast number of Americans at risk of this condition, our modern obsession with three meals a day plus snacks makes more sense. It’s one way of stabilizing your blood sugar. Eating more frequently helps you feel better, even if it isn’t biologically necessary for survival.
However, what you eat may matter as much as when you consume it in terms of controlling blood sugar spikes. Many Americans eatwhy do we snack diets — including snacks — high in white flour. All-purpose flour seems like it’s in everything, but it can create a nutritional nightmare.
Why? This substance absorbs as rapidly as sugar into your bloodstream, causing spikes that lead to debilitating crashes, leaving you famished again. That isn’t the only trouble, though. The manufacturing of this product creates a chemical byproduct called alloxan — something scientists use to induce diabetes in laboratory animals. Therefore, those crackers give you a one-two punch, spiking your blood sugar and damaging your pancreas, which creates the insulin to help your body manage it.
What should you eat? Foods high in protein and fiber keep you fullest the longest. Fiber creates a feeling of satiety while nourishing your intestinal microbiome, colonies of beneficial bacteria that play essential roles in everything from digestion to mood regulation. It also releases acetate, which signals the brain to stop eating when introduced to the colon or bloodstream.
Protein also works on your mind. Your body regulates your food intake through mu-opioid receptors (MORs) located on nerves lining the major blood vessel from your gut to your brain. Digested proteins block these MORs, signaling your brain that it’s time to stop eating. It also prompts your gut to release glucose, keeping your energy levels high.
How Human Ancestors Probably Ate
Our modern American 3-squares-plus-snacks arose from the influence of European settlers. They considered Native Americans uncivilized for eating whenever hunger struck instead of formalizing their daily meals.
However, the new pandemic realities shifted some folks’ eating patterns — making them more closely resemble the routines followed by early humans. Although it isn’t periodic fasting, more folks found themselves eating one large meal a day, supported by snacks when they felt hungry. This practice mirrored those of our ancestors, whose less reliable food supply would have left most doing the same.
Even people during the Middle Ages typically ate twice a day, taking breakfast late in the morning and another meal later in the afternoon. It wasn’t until the advent of capitalistic business cultures forcing workers to labor from 5 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. that a morning meal became necessary. Today, many people can safely skip the sunrise croissant with no ill effects.
When Is Snacking Okay?
Is snacking ever okay? The answer is yes in some cases, no in others. It all comes back to the question of why we snack in the first place.
The apparent reason to reach for food is that you feel hungry. However, modern life is far more complex than that. It’s perfectly acceptable — even recommended — to balance your blood sugar before a big exam with a banana or a handful of nuts.
However, how often do you find yourself scraping the bottom of the chip bag without realizing how much you’ve consumed? If you’re like many, probably more times than you can count. You probably weren’t famished for that many potatoes.
People also eat because they’re bored — think about the way you might graze at your work desk while staring at a budget report for hours. They also eat to manage their emotions. For some, food can become an addiction every bit as real and dangerous as drugs or alcohol. It can affect your home and even professional life.
Therefore, snacking is okay — if it’s hunger driving the urge. The only way to know for sure is to get mindful. Practice performing a body scan before you indulge, consciously examining your physical sensations. Hit your reusable water bottle, too. Dehydration can sometimes masquerade as hunger pangs. Wait five minutes. If your stomach is still growling, go ahead and break into that package of peanuts.
Why Do We Snack?
Answering why we snack requires a careful look at the science behind human hunger. People eat for all kinds of reasons — knowing why helps you choose when to indulge and when to say no.