Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New Diet Claims Snacks Make You Fat

One onerous cross-county trip, somewhere around mile Nebraska, my husband invented a fun little car game. Turning to me with a straight face he said, “Plastic: pro or con?”

“Excuse me?” I said and threw some rice cakes behind me, hoping they’d land somewhere in the vicinity of the kids.

“Plastic. Are you for it or against it?” replied the high school debate geek.

“You mean like credit cards?” One of the rice cakes came flying back at my head. Note to self: baby does not like rice cakes.

“Whatever. Just plastic.”

“How can anyone be against plastic?” I said, exasperated. “It’s omnipresent.”

“Ah, then you’re pro plastic. I never knew that about you before.” He said it so seriously that I was sure this was going to come up in a marriage counseling session some years down the road.

He was silent for a couple of miles as I threw goldfish crackers at the baby (missing more than I hit - my aim is not great) and then, “Michael Jackson: Pro or con?”

Before I could even answer, from the back seat a tiny voice yelled out, “Pwo!” And thus it began.

Sometimes I feel like health and fitness research is a lot like my husband’s car game. Researchers take something random and obvious and then throw a lot of money at it trying to decide if it’s good or bad. The most current example is one of the latest fitness fads to hit the market: snacky snacks.

You know what I hate more than adults who use the phrase “snacky snack”? People who would take away my snacky snack. So I can’t say I’m completely impartial on this subject. Back in the day, our grandmothers used to admonish “No snacks, you’ll ruin your dinner!” to their kids and even used it themselves as a diet technique. Eating between meals was not popular. And then over the last 10-20 years, research has swung the opposite direction with every major diet proclaiming “three meals and two snacks” or “don’t go more than three hours without eating” or the even more ubiquitous five (or six! or seven!) mini meals a day instead of three squares as the secret to stoking our sluggish metabolisms and torching fat. In fact, I dare you to open up any lady mag these days and not find an article on the benefits of snacking.

So it’s about time for the pendelum to swing the other way, wouldn’t you say? Enter The Leptin Diet by Byron J. Richards. This “new” diet claims to help control your hunger hormones, specifically leptin and gherlin, by timing your meals to take advantage of your natural hormonal fluctuations thereby avoiding insatiable hunger. This diet espouses several tricks including:

  1. Never eat after dinner. Allow 11 to 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and finish eating dinner at least three hours before bed.
  2. Eat three meals a day. Allow five to six hours between meals and do not snack. Snacking causes leptin to malfunction.
  3. Do not eat large meals. Eat slowly and stop eating a meal when you are slightly less than full. Consistently eating large meals is the easiest way there is to poison your body with food.
  4. Eat a breakfast containing protein. Your metabolism can increase by 30 percent after a high-protein meal. A high carb meal such as cereal or a bagel will increase your metabolism only by four percent.
  5. Reduce the amount of carbohydrates eaten. Definitely eat some carbs, but don’t overdo it. In each meal, half should be a protein source, and half should be a healthy carb.

Don’t overeat, eat a bunch of protein, reduce carbs - all standard weight loss mumbo jumbo. Until you get to the snacking part. What - no snacks?!?!? What kind of diet is this? And how does he ever expect to sell his (I’m sure forthcoming) line of snack bars, shakes, yogurts and after-dinner mints with such advice??

But Does It Work?
I know people - very healthy people, even - who swear by three meals a day with no snacks. When I was in Europe I discovered that snacking is not very common there - at least in the sense that you don’t see Spaniards or Germans pulling out little plastic baggies of trail mix on the metro. They did, however, have two-hour lunches and a siesta (well, the Spaniards anyhow) that probably helped nip that urge to snack in the bud. And the Germans just seemed really anal about having food outside of a designated food area. For the most part, all of our European friends were quite svelte.

Europeans, blah, blah, blah; we all know that Americans have a fat inferiority complex. So what about this leptin business? Back in the day - yes, the same day in which our grandmothers forbade snacking (i.e. the ’50’s) - scientists discovered the effects of a hormone that seemed to control obesity in mice. It sat on the backburner for a few years but as Americans got fatter, interest in the mysterious hormone grew until finding it became the Holy Grail of nutrition research. Finally, to much fanfare, in 1994 leptin was identified by Jeffrey M. Friedman.

As he discovered that leptin signals satiety, this led scientists to crow loudly that they had found the cure to obesity… only to make them eat crow a few years later when it was discovered that save for a select few humans missing a gene, leptin did not seem to have the same effect on humans as it does in mice. Moreover, scientists were discovering that leptin was only a tiny part of a complicated pathway that tells the body when it is hungry and when it is full. (Ignoring of course, that many people eat when they are decidedly not hungry.)

While leptin didn’t turn out to be the miraculous discovery that people - namely the drug companies - were hoping it would be, it has still taught us a lot about how our bodies regulate our desire for food. But has the science evolved enough to make dietary recommendations based on that research? Researchers are skeptical, but that didn’t stop Richards from writing his book.

At this point, I think it all comes back to deciding what works for you and your body. If you snack all the time and are overweight, then try cutting out the snacks to see if it helps. For some people, no snacks just make them eat more at meal time and feel deprived the rest of the time. For others, if they tell themselves they don’t eat between meals then that’s the end of it and they don’t think about food except for the 3 appointed times of day. What research does agree on is that we can train our bodies to anticipate hunger so perhaps it’s just a matter of deciding a schedule and sticking to it?

So, snacks: pro or con? Go!