Snacking and Belly Fat

How Eating More Often During the Day Can Expand Your Waistline

woman with remote and bowl of chips
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Manufacturers of snack foods and many diet gurus insist that eating snacks and mini-meals throughout the day is a sure-fire strategy to lose weight and keep it off. But an intriguing small study released in 2014 suggests that snacking between meals not only increases body weight, it also leads to more dangerous abdominal fat and fatty liver disease - compared with eating the same food distributed throughout the day in three larger meals.

Does it Matter How Often You Eat? 

Dutch scientists from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam set out to discover whether how often you eat during the day matters when it comes to healthy abdomens and livers. Lots of research has been published on the dangers of eating too many calories overall, the growing prevalence of obesity, and its impact on age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Few investigations, however, have looked at how your pattern of eating (ie; just meals, meals and snacks, or day-long grazing) affects body weight and overall health. 

How Much Do We Snack? 

Snacking has skyrocketed since the 1970s with the advent of convenience foods in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. The habit of between-meal snacking was cited by Harvard scientists in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2003 as the main source of extra calories to blame for our current rise in obesity.

Likewise, a 2012 paper published in the journal Appetite found that between-meal snacking is the primary source of excess calories among obese women.

And the problem isn't just among adults: children in the U.S. typically eat almost a third of their daily calories as high-fat, high-sugar snacks.

Studying the Effects of Snacking

To figure out the health impact of eating often vs.

eating only at three set meal times each day, the researchers gathered 36 lean men (with an average healthy BMI of 22), feeding them either a high-calorie diet or a balanced diet for six weeks. The high-calorie group was given a high-fat, high-sugar supplement beverage or just a high-sugar beverage representing 40% more calories than required to maintain their body weight.

Some of the men were instructed to consume their high-calorie supplement with each of their meals (ie, breakfast, lunch, and dinner), but to refrain from eating between meals. The other high-calorie subjects were told to drink their high-calorie supplement 2-3 hours after each meal.

What the Researchers Found

After six weeks, none of the control group members had gained weight on their balanced diet. Not surprisingly, all of the high-calorie subjects had gained weight (an average of 5½ pounds), but only the snacking subjects had developed more abdominal fat. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that the increased abdominal fat in the men who got the high-fat, high-sugar supplement was the more dangerous visceral fat which surrounds internal organs and is linked with a host of disorders including metabolic syndrome.

In addition, all of the snacking subjects had developed a layer of flab around their bellies.

Again, snacking (whether on fat and sugar, just sugar alone) led to more belly fat.  Men who consumed the equivalent additional calories - eating the same calorie-rich supplements alongside a meal instead of between meals - did not have more belly fat at the end of the six-week study.

There was a dangerous effect on the livers of snacking men as well: all of the snacking subjects experienced a rise in intrahepatic triglycerides (IHTG), a marker of fatty liver disease.

Why Would Snacking Lead to More Belly Fat? 

The researchers are unsure why snacking led to more abdominal fat, although they theorize that our bodies might use nutrients differently if we're constantly eating throughout the day, rather than in a pattern of 'fasting and feasting' which is how humans have eaten throughout evolution.

What If the Snacks were Healthy? 

The researchers did not test for the effects of between-meal snacking on fruits and vegetables, foods that have been linked to less disease and better longevity as part of an anti-aging diet. While fresh produce delivers significant nutrition in the form of phytonutrients and healthy fiber, processed foods which are more commonly consumed as snacks in North America typically offer an excess of salt, simple sugars, and fat.

Snacking on nutritious foods may help you lose weight if the overall calories you consume do not exceed those you burn over the course of the day.

The Bottom line

Unlike past research which focuses exclusively on the impact of eating too many calories on the rise in obesity and liver disease, this study suggests that snacking on high-sugar and/or high-fat foods is also a contributor to these dangerous conditions.

More Resources on Belly Fat

For more information on nutrition, belly fat, and health, be sure to read Is My Belly Fat the Risky Kind?


D.M. Cutler, E.I.Glaeser, and J.M. Shapiro. “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” Journal of Economic Perspectives Volume 17, Number 3—Summer 2003. Pages 93–118.

Karin E Koopman, Matthan WA Caan, Aart J Nederveen, Anouk Pels, Mariette T Ackermans, Eric Fliers, Susanne E la Fleur, and Mireille J Serlie. "Hypercaloric Diets With Increased Meal Frequency, But Not Meal Size, Increase Intrahepatic Triglycerides: a Randomized Controlled Trial." Hepatology doi: 10.1002/hep.27149

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