12/16/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Snacking Is Linked to Weight Loss, But Is It the Snack or the Break?

There's no shortage of research attempting to identify the behavioral patterns that separate lean people from overweight people. A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition explored whether snacking was one of those patterns, suggesting a link between eating more frequently and a lower BMI.

It would be convenient to deduce from this study that snacking leads to weight loss. And it wouldn't be unfounded; healthy snacks help maintain a steady blood sugar, which supports focus and mood and may prevent over eating or poor food choices later. Unfortunately, convenience is not usually the best path to weight loss.

While the study notes that those with lower BMIs were also more likely to consume a healthy breakfast and dinner and less likely to eat a meal while watching TV or a movie, there's one correlation that wasn't looked at that may be more indicative of the cause. That is that people who eat more frequently might be also be engaging in the healthy habit of renewal, taking frequent breaks to get the energy boost they need.

Renewal is simply the state of being made new, which, when applied looks like a daily activity or ritual that revives depleted energy. Calories are one measure of energy, but fresh air, movement and laughter, for example, provide less measurable energy that may in fact be immeasurable, having considerable benefit without the downside of potential weight gain. What if the link between snacking and weight loss were more about the snack break than the snack?

Beyond the often-cited serotonin boost from exercise and some indication of a relationship between serotonin and weight loss, research shows numerous health benefits of renewal activities like spending time in nature, deep breathing, listening to music and even physical touch. Many of these health benefits may also be linked to weight loss.

For example, the physiological effects of renewal activities move our bodies from the reactive and stressed sympathetic "fight or flight" state into the relaxed parasympathetic "rest and repair" state. The latter not only corresponds with decreased blood pressure and heart rate, but is also the body's healing mode, shifting energy from short-term survival to nourishment and regeneration. While some research associates slower sympathetic nerve activity with "weight loss resistance," given the sympathetic system regulates resting metabolic rate, increasingly experts point to the connection between stress, and its hormonal byproduct cortisol, and weight gain. De-stressing activities could counter stress-related weight challenges, including increased appetite, decreased willpower and holding onto fat, and allow our body to rebuild and return to an optimal functioning state.

The Energy Project, a consulting firm that helps people and companies design a better way of working, is a staunch advocate of the renewal break. One of the key evidence-based tenants of their work is that we humans perform at our best when we move regularly between expending and renewing energy. While intuitive on some level, the emphasis on "regular" may be the secret ingredient to effective energy management and job performance and the connection to the behavior of the snackers in the study. Individuals who take frequent breaks, that is every 90 minutes according to founder Tony Schwartz, could be skillfully balancing their effectiveness and weight at the same time.

Beyond the renewal activity itself, the other healthy habit that may be connected to more frequent eating is the often-underutilized practice of connecting to what you need rather than habitually grabbing the low hanging fruit, or more likely, the low hanging cookie. Charles Duhigg shares an example of this in The Power of Habit in his cookie experiment. Upon investigation, he realizes that his mid-afternoon cookie ritual was not in fact a quest for sugar, but a desire for human connection. Once he became aware of it, he was able to more effectively get the boost he needed without the snack.

The noun snack means a small amount of food eaten between meals, but the function of a snack is a boost in energy. Like Duhigg, many of us may be able to get our boost without the unwanted side effect of weight gain, with a "nature snack" like a walk outside or an "ear snack" like listening to a song. Perhaps the next round of research will show that frequent eaters are simultaneously consuming these other forms of energy that help them effectively manage their nervous system, their stress level, their energy and, in effect, their weight.