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updated: 1/18/2012 1:14 PM

Does snacking help or hurt a healthy diet?

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Q. I'm confused by conflicting advice about whether snacking helps or hurts weight control and health. What do you suggest?

A. Snacks can promote good health when you choose foods that fill nutritional gaps.

For example, if you have trouble including enough calcium-rich foods (such as dairy products and soy milk), fruit and dietary fiber in your meals, snacks offer a great chance to do so. However, for many people, "snack food" means food low in nutrients and concentrated in calories. For weight control the key point seems to be how snacking affects total calorie consumption.

If you're not hungry between meals, there's no reason to eat more than three times a day. Research does show though, that eating less than three times a day seems to make appetite control for weight management more difficult. And eating more than six times a day makes it difficult to keep calories low enough to support a healthy weight except for athletes with extremely high calorie needs.

However, within the range of eating three to six times a day, impact on weight varies. Controlled studies do not support the idea that more frequent eating will boost metabolism so you burn more calories, but some people find they can control their appetite better and that snacks help them avoid overeating at the next meal. A snack can prevent or resolve cravings that can stem from low blood sugar, especially among obese people.

If you snack when you are hungry and choose foods and portions that keep total calories appropriate for your needs, it may help weight control. Depending on how active you are, whether you're trying to change or maintain weight, and whether you snack once or three times a day, for typical adults a healthy snack may be 100 to 250 calories. That's a target easily exceeded by typical snacks and sugary or other high calorie drinks. Instead, if you snack, choose lower calorie, nutrient-rich foods such as whole fruit, a small handful of nuts or a half sandwich that can fill and fuel you for several hours.

Q. Is frozen spinach as nutritious as fresh spinach?

A. If you will be serving spinach cooked, don't hesitate to use the frozen product.

Fresh spinach that is truly fresh is the form highest in folate, a B vitamin that may help prevent cancer and heart disease. However, a study at Pennsylvania State University shows that when fresh spinach sits in a truck for transportation long distances, or sits in your refrigerator for a week, folate content drops so much that frozen spinach becomes the better source.

Research is inconsistent about whether or not content of beta-carotene and other carotenoids drops during storage of fresh spinach, but does suggest that beta-carotene stays level when spinach is frozen. Spinach is also a good source of vitamin C.

Cook by steaming, microwaving, stir-frying or sautéing to retain folate and vitamin C, since boiling spinach in a pot of water can cut content in half. When using frozen spinach, you can reduce vitamin C losses by cooking it directly from the freezer without thawing it first. Frozen spinach is easy to keep on hand and provides an easy way to boost nutrition in soup, pasta sauce, eggs and casseroles.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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