Snacking when you're trying to lose weight is like having premium cable on a budget: When it's time to cut back, they're the first things to go. But swearing off between-meal eats can actually have an adverse effect on your waistline: "Studies show that people who avoid eating between meals may end up consuming more calories overall," says WH weight-loss advisor Keri Glassman, R.D., author of The Snack Factor Diet. "When you're famished, your blood sugar is low and your defenses are down, so you don't necessarily make the best choices." As a nation of snack addicts with no sign of reforming — according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2002, women snack more than twice a day, at around 192 calories a pop — it's time to embrace our need to nibble.
To snack without adding bulk to your backside, fill your cupboard with foods that have built-in willpower. Here are three snacking strategies that come with a no-gorge guarantee:
Just Add Air
Foods that are pumped full of air make your stomach feel inflated without giving you a beach-ball belly. In a study published last year in the journal Appetite, Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan and the director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State, served visitors to her lab either crunchy cheese snacks or more aerated puffy cheese snacks. Those munching the puffier snacks consumed nearly 75 percent more by volume, but they took in 20 percent fewer calories. "When something is full of air, an equal amount looks bigger, so people tend to take in fewer calories," Rolls says. If you nosh on air-puffed snacks, you'll be able to eat more without your gut suffering the consequences — and you can stretch your snack over an entire episode of Mad Men instead of blowing it all in the first commercial break.
As far as your muffin top is concerned, all calories are created equal. But your brain plays favorites. "Liquids don't seem to trigger the same response in metabolism and hunger suppression that solids do," says Susan Swithers, Ph.D., of Purdue University's Ingestive Behavior Research Center. "You're consuming calories, but your brain doesn't really register them, so you still feel hungry and can overeat without realizing it." The good news: Experts speculate that thicker liquids, such as smoothies, are recognized as food by your brain's appetite center, so they can help you get to that couldn't-eat-another-bite feeling.
Dutch researchers backed up the idea with a study published this year in the International Journal of Obesity. After offering unlimited amounts of chocolate in three forms — milk, custard, and a beverage with a consistency between the two — they found (in addition to, we bet, a lot of eager volunteers) that those who had the chocolate milk consumed 30 percent more calories than those who ate the pudding. The mid-consistency mixture fared somewhere in the middle.
Spice It Up
Spices have a good track record as a weight-loss tool. One study showed that spiking soup with a big dose of red pepper led to consuming fewer calories in subsequent meals. Not only does the hot sensation slow you down, pepper may cause thermogenesis (your body literally heats up, burning a few extra calories in the process). Another reason to kick it up a notch: Food scientists in Taiwan report that capsaicin, the compound that gives red pepper its pow, may prove lethal to fat cells, killing them before they can fully form. There's common sense as well as science at work here, says Judith S. Stern, Sc.D., a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis. "You simply can't eat spicy cuisine quickly."