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by Dr. Phil Maffetone

Perhaps no single dietary habit can make a more positive difference in your health than snacking. That's right - eating between meals is good for you.

I know your mom may have told you differently, but she was only partially right. Between-meal binges on junk food can be devastating to your health. But healthy, real-food snacks that contain balanced macronutrients have many health benefits. Healthy snacking can help you control blood-sugar levels, improve metabolic efficiency, reduce stress and cholesterol, burn body fat and increase energy levels in all areas of your life, including training and racing.

The key to healthful snacking is to reduce the amount of food eaten at regular meals, and distribute this nutritional wealth throughout the day. I call snacks "mini-meals." And that's the approach you want to take. Rather than eat two or three big meals in a day, divide your food consumption into five or six snacks or mini-meals.

The ideal plan is to start the day with a good, balanced breakfast that includes an adequate serving of quality protein. For example, eggs and whole-grain toast or cottage cheese and fruit can get your day off to a good start. Skipping breakfast - or, worse yet, eating a high-carbohydrate breakfast of cereal or a bagel - can be counterproductive, negating all the effects of this more healthy style of eating.

From breakfast on, plan to eat every two to four hours. A schedule that works well for many people is a good breakfast, followed by a snack at 10 a.m., lunch at noon, another snack at 2 or 3 p.m., a light dinner, and a snack later in the evening. However, some people need to eat smaller snacks more often than that.

Healthy snacks can be almost anything you like, just as long as they are made from real, healthy food and contain protein. Experiment to discover how much food you need, recognizing that some people may need much larger snacks than others. Avoid junk food and high-carbohydrate snacks. Ideally, snacks should be just like any meal, containing a proper balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat.

A two-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein is a good rule of thumb. However, many people find they need higher amounts of protein. Eggs, meat, fish, cheese, whey and soy are good protein sources. The best sources of carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and honey.

Pay attention to the type of fats in your snacks. Too much saturated fat or omega-6 vegetable oil may increase inflammation and cholesterol levels. Try to consume mostly monounsaturated fat from foods such as olive oil and raw almonds.

Snacks should also supply adequate vitamins and minerals and contain phytonutrients. Don't overlook fruits and vegetables when choosing snacks. A vegetable snack can be a stick of raw celery stuffed with natural peanut butter, or a bowl of leftover vegetable soup. Similarly, a fruit-based snack can be an apple with a handful of almonds, or berries blended with plain yogurt in a smoothie.

Other examples of healthy snacks include raw almonds or a slice of cheese with a piece of fruit, raw almond butter with fresh apple or pear slices, cottage cheese and fruit, a salad with cheese, or a hard-boiled egg and a carrot. Energy bars made from real food-ingredients with balanced macronutrients also make good snacks, as do leftovers from healthy meals. It is important to keep a variety of healthy snack foods on hand at all times, so plan for a variety of snacks on your next visit to the grocery store.

Although this approach is different from the way you may be accustomed to eating, you will find it quickly suppresses cravings, especially for junk foods, improves physical and mental energy, and stimulates weight loss.

Inside your body something else is happening - your metabolism is changing. Since snacking stabilizes blood sugar and prompts your body to produce less insulin, your body will store less fat and use more of it to fuel all your daily activities from work to play. Many people find that they have much more energy when following a program of healthy snacking.

Healthy snacks can help your body counteract the harmful effects of daily stress. This reduced stress brings about many health advantages, including less production of the adrenal hormone cortisol - which, like insulin, also prompts your body to store fat. Cortisol can disrupt sleep patterns, and adrenal stress is a common thread in people who wake during the middle of the night.

Snacking helps to reduce cholesterol. A recent long-term study published in the British Medical Journal confirmed that eating more frequently lowers blood cholesterol, specifically LDL, known as the "bad" cholesterol. This confirms results of earlier studies showing the effect of snacking on lowering cholesterol. In addition, studies show a staggering 30% increase in heart disease in those eating three meals or less per day.

While snacking has received a bad rap over the years, experts now agree that it was the type of food, not the frequency of eating, that caused problems. Now we know that eating healthy, balanced snacks throughout the day can help you control blood-sugar levels, improve metabolic efficiency, reduce stress and cholesterol, and burn more body fat for energy.

So what are you waiting for - dinner?

Dr. Philip Maffetone is a widely recognized expert on health, nutrition and human performance. He holds a doctorate degree in chiropractic, is certified in Meridian Therapy and Physiotherapy, and holds a B.S. degree in human biology. In addition to helping thousands of people achieve healthy, active lifestyles during his 25 years of practicing complementary medicine, Dr. Maffetone also coached many amateur and professional athletes, including six-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon champion Mark Allen. The author of more than 12 books on health and fitness, he currently is involved in the research and development of functional-food products to improve health and prevent disease.

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