Americans seem to have a love affair with snacking.
As a society, we eat twice as many snacks as we did a generation ago. Women, on average, nosh on upwards of 400 snack calories per day, according to federal survey data. And men consume almost 600 calories a day in between meals.
So, if nibbling is our new pastime, researchers have a suggestion for one satiating snack that seems to help control our appetites: almonds.
According to the findings of fresh research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who added 1.5 ounces of almonds to their diet each day reported reduced hunger, and they compensated for the extra calories from nuts by eating less at other times of the day.
"This research suggests that almonds may be a good snack option, especially for those concerned about weight," says Richard Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. "Despite adding 250 calories to the diet, there was no change in total energy intake."
And after a month of eating almonds each day, the participants did not gain weight.
If you listen to my story on All Things Considered, you'll hear how Glenn Reed of East Orange, N.J., manages to stay slim. We met up with him at Union Station, in Washington, D.C., during the late afternoon commuting rush.
"There's a lot of junk and sugar here [at the train station]," Reed noted, "so I always look for something with nuts in it."
As he munched on trail mix that included almonds and dried cranberries, he says nuts may be calorie dense and full of fat — which many Americans are wary of — but for him, nuts are the perfect snack.
"I love the crunchiness, and this is a snack that will definitely ... hold you over [until dinner]," Reed told me.
So what is it about nuts that can help curb our appetites? It's most likely a combination of factors, explains Mattes.
"The protein, the unsaturated fat composition, the fiber" all very likely play a role, he says. And almonds are low in carbohydrates, which tend to stimulate our appetites.
One other factor? Chewing. As we've reported, research has shown that if we don't chew our almonds thoroughly, some of the calories move right through us — undigested.
Prior research has already shown that almonds help increase satiety, both in people of normal weight and those prone to being overweight.
The new observation here, according to Mattes, is that almonds are even "better at controlling appetite when consumed as snacks."
His team found that eating almonds in between meals tended to blunt the rise in hunger, compared with when people ate the nuts as part of a meal.
It's not clear whether all nuts have this effect. This study was funded by the almond industry, and researchers didn't evaluate other types of nuts.
Mattes explains that industry-funded studies are becoming more common, especially as government funding becomes harder to obtain. But he emphasizes that the research is carried out completely independently and is peer-reviewed before being published.
"So it does have the checks and balances," Mattes concludes.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Americans love to snack. As a society, we eat twice as many snacks as we did a generation ago. It's one factor that helps explain our nation's expanding waistline. But new research suggests there's at least one kind of snack food that can satisfy the need for a quick pick-me-up without packing on extra pounds.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Lots of us have experienced those late-afternoon hunger pangs. And for 90 percent of Americans, that means at least one snack per day is the norm. Federal data shows women eat upwards of 400 snack calories; and guys consume, on average, about 600 calories a day in between meals.
GLEN REED: That's how I eat every day. (Laughter) It's just part of my life.
AUBREY: That's Glen Reed of East Orange, N.J. We caught up with him at the train station where he was commuting in the late-afternoon rush. And I asked him how he stays lean snacking so much.
REED: Well, I try to eat healthy. So - I mean, there's a lot of junk and a lot of sugar and stuff here. So I always look for something with nuts in it, to make me feel not so guilty. (Laughter)
AUBREY: Reed laughs but turns out, he may be onto something. Nuts are calorie-dense and full of fat, something many Americans are told to be wary of. But scientists are coming to the conclusion that nuts can be great for snacking. As Reed discovered years ago, they're so satisfying that you tend to eat less at the next meal.
REED: Well, I just took a bite of an almond. I mean, I really just love the taste of salt. I also love the crunchiness. This is a snack that will definitely take you over to - hold you over, till I have my dinner.
AUBREY: Which he says is usually a small meal because he's not feeling ravenous. And Reed is certainly not alone. As a new study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports, researchers had a bunch of volunteers add about 250 calories of almonds to their diet each day.
RICHARD MATTES: Either with breakfast, as a midmorning snack, with lunch, or as an afternoon snack.
AUBREY: Nuts researcher Richard Mattes of Purdue University. He says based on prior observations, he expected to see that if people added these daily portions of almonds, amounting to about an ounce and a half, they would tend to eat less the rest of the day.
MATTES: And indeed, that's what we found, that despite adding 250 calories of almonds to the diet, there was no change in total energy intake; so that people compensated by eating less at other times of the day.
AUBREY: And after one month of eating almonds every day, there was no weight gain among the participants. Now, since this study was funded by the almond industry, the researchers did not study the effects of other nuts - which are likely to be similar. So how does Mattes explain what he found? Well, he says almonds check a lot of boxes.
MATTES: The protein, the fat - the unsaturated fat composition - the fiber, are all likely candidates.
AUBREY: Add to the picture that nuts are fairly low in carbs, which tend to stimulate the appetite. And there is one more thing that may be a factor here. It's something that Glen Reed has noticed about chewing.
REED: I'm a fast eater. So most people say you swallow your food - you don't even chew. You know, so I probably chew less than most people.
AUBREY: And research has shown that if we don't chew the almonds we're eating thoroughly, some of those calories move right through us undigested.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.