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To Snack or Not To Snack?

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Changing your eating patterns may do more than get you out of a rut.

By making certain adjustments in when you eat or how you allot your calories you may reduce your risk of serious disease, according to the findings in two recent studies.

Skipping your usual before-bed snack and stretching the time between dinner and breakfast may provide better blood glucose control, according to Catherine Marinac, doctoral candidate in public health, University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center UC San Diego/San Diego State University, California.

Intermittent fasting is another concept that may prove beneficial, based on research from the University of Florida.

Marinac and her colleagues knew from animal studies that giving calories for a limited amount of time protected against diabetes and cancer compared with giving animals food at any time.

Her study, based on participants’ diet information from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), concluded that increasing the length of time between dinner and breakfast could be protective.

“In general [we] saw that longer nighttime fasting was associated with better glucose control,” says Marinac, first author on a paper in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

That’s important because some human studies suggest that higher glucose levels in women are associated with the development of breast cancer.

In a different approach, health experts at the University of Florida looked at the potential value of a diet that alternated fasting and feasting.

Researchers asked 24 adult volunteers to follow an intermittent fasting diet for two three-week periods.

During the first three-week regimen, study participants alternated fast and feast days, eating 25 percent of their normal calorie intake when fasting and 175 percent of their calories when feasting.

The three-week trial was then repeated with the addition of supplements of anti-oxidant supplements vitamins C and E.

Losing weight wasn’t the goal, according to Douglas M. Bennion, M.D.-PhD candidate, Department of Physiology and Functional Genomics, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville.

“The study was interested in seeing what health benefits resulted from intermittent fasting in the absence of weight loss,” says Bennion, one of the researchers.

They found the regimen led to lower levels of insulin in the blood.

“That probably means there was less resistance to insulin, which is a good thing. Insulin resistance is related to diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome,” says Bennion, who cautions that the study used a small group of young adults for a short time period.

Fasting also led to an increase in oxidative stress.

Although oxidative stress is usually associated with a higher risk for disease, Bennion and his colleagues saw the opposite happening.

“Our study is based on a new way of thinking about oxidative stress that looks at the cells’ natural defense mechanisms, which are turned on by a little stress, “ Bennion says.

However, beneficial changes from intermittent fasting weren’t seen when the volunteers took the vitamins.

The researchers concluded that the supplements sheltered the body’s cells so they didn’t respond by increasing their natural defenses.

So, how should you eat based on the studies?

Although the researchers at UC San Diego and the University of Florida are calling for more studies to support their findings, you may be wondering whether to try either of the approaches.

Food-free nights may be easier to follow.

“It’s a pretty simple and understandable guideline that people can comprehend and adopt,” says Catherine Marinac.

For example, instead of eating between 6 am and 9 pm, limit eating to a stretch from 6 am to 6 pm.

By contrast Douglas M. Bennion isn’t encouraging a feast or famine regimen for the general public.

“I don’t think this is something you can sustain for very long. It’s not meant to be a lifelong diet,” he says.