Research evolving on nighttime snacks

Please help settle a disagreement: Are you more likely to gain weight from eating a snack at night than if you ate the same snack earlier in the day?

You may not realize it, but that is a loaded question.

For years, the standard nutrition response has been “no” — it’s the overall balance between calorie intake and energy outgo that matters, not what time of day you eat.

And that’s still the take of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). If you go to its website,http://www.eatright.org, and search for “night snack,” you’ll find lots of great guidance, including the notion that eating “late-evening calories are no more likely to promote weight gain than calories eaten at other times of the day.”

But recent studies are beginning to prompt some researchers to reconsider.

Most recently, in a study published in June in the journal Cell, researchers reported findings about two groups of mice fed a high-fat diet. The mice that were fed frequently throughout the day, disrupting their normal nighttime feeding cycle, were more likely to become obese and suffer from related conditions even though their calorie intake was the same as mice fed during normal feeding times. The mice given food only at the “right” feeding time (for mice, it’s natural to eat at night) had better usage of nutrients and expenditure of energy.

A study in the journal Obesity in late 2009 had similar findings: In that study, mice fed only during their natural feeding time weighed significantly less than mice fed at the wrong times. The mice fed at the wrong times also tended to be less active and to eat slightly more than the other group — a bad combination.

The researchers involved in these studies suggest that our eating patterns should adjust to circadian rhythms — that is, you should eat during the day and avoid snacks at night, especially if you want to maintain or lose weight.

Whether or not you accept the researchers’ conclusions, you still might want to consider whether nighttime snacks are the best choice for you. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics itself recommends pausing to think if you’re tempted to eat a nighttime snack: Are you eating because you’re hungry, or because you’re bored or anxious, or have just gotten into the habit of having that snack?

Besides, if you’re trying to lose weight, giving yourself a time-related cutoff for eating could help you trim the number of overall calories you consume on a day-to-day basis. It could be a good place to start.

Science behind appetite complex

I’ve been overweight all my life. Recently, I’ve read a little about what controls hunger and appetite. Are there foods I can eat that will help me feel fuller sooner, so I eat less?

As you suspect, the connection between eating and feeling full isn’t as simple as most people think. Scientists are still uncovering new information about the mechanisms involved.

For example, we’ve known for a while that eating foods high in protein may help us feel full more than when we eat carbohydrates or fats. Scientists are just now figuring out why. A French study published online in early July 2012 in the journal Cell shed some light: Apparently, peptides — the product of digested proteins — block the activity of certain nerve receptors in the gut. Blocking those receptors sends signals to the brain that in turn stimulates the intestine to release glucose, which suppresses the appetite. Knowing this provides more evidence for the benefits of including at least some lean protein in every meal.

A little fat in the food we eat also tends to help us feel fuller after eating. That’s one reason why dietitians caution us about blindly choosing low-fat versions of foods: The calorie difference between low-fat and “regular” foods may not be as great as you think, and if you don’t feel as satisfied after eating a low-fat food, you may end up eating more of it. Keep that in mind as you make your food choices.

High-fiber foods are other good choices. Fiber passes through the body undigested, so it provides bulk with few calories. Opt for naturally occurring fiber — different types of fiber now added to some foods and beverages don’t have the same satiating effect.

Other things to consider include:

  • Eat slowly. It takes about 20 minutes for the signals between your stomach and brain to make the connection that you’ve eaten enough.
  • Stop when you feel satisfied — don’t wait until you feel full. Try to gauge that internally, not by whether anything is left on your plate. If you can’t help but join the “clean-plate club” at most meals, serve yourself smaller portions. Pause before you serve yourself another helping, and do an internal check before making the decision.
  • Eat breakfast. People who eat breakfast tend to be less likely to be overweight, although it’s not clear why. It could help you feel satisfied as you start the day, making impulse eating less likely. Good choices include high-fiber cereals or an egg — both will help you feel satisfied and start your day off right.

New to canning? Do your homework

Since I retired and I have more time on my hands, I’d like to try home canning. Where should I start?

Congratulations on your interest in exploring a new skill. Home canning isn’t rocket science, but it does require time and effort. And it must be done properly to ensure safety.

It may be best to dip your toes into canning by using the boiling water bath canning method instead of pressure canning. Boiling water canning is less complicated and requires less-expensive equipment.

However, you can use water bath canning only for acid foods. That includes berries and all other fruits, and sauerkraut and other fermented products. Tomatoes are right on the line between acid and low-acid foods — you can use the boiling water bath method if you add extra acid (lemon juice or citric acid, for example) to the tomatoes when you process them.

It’s vitally important to follow canning recipes and guidelines precisely. Adding or eliminating ingredients can affect the food’s acidity, which could affect the processing time required to an unknown degree. Canning recipes have been scientifically tested to make sure bacteria or other contaminants don’t spoil your hard work or make people sick.

Also, make sure your jars are made for home canning. Check that they’re not chipped. Use new lids each time.

You can buy a boiling water canner if you want to, but all you really need is a pot large enough to be able to cover jars with one or two inches of water, plus another one or two inches above that to allow the water to stay at a full rolling boil. You’ll also need a rack that fits in the bottom of the pot, so water gets underneath the jars, too.

Plus, you’ll need to know if you’re more than 1,000 feet above sea level. At elevations above 1,000 feet, water boils at temperatures lower than 212 degrees Fahrenheit. That means you’ll need to increase the processing time as indicated in recipes. One way to find your elevation is to go to the U.S. Geological Survey website at http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic.

Of course, there are a host of other considerations you’ll need be aware of. A good place to start is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at http://nchfp.uga.edu. The site contains detailed canning information, a free online home study course and downloadable PDFs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Complete Guide to Home Canning. You can also purchase the USDA guide from Purdue University at https://mdc.itap.purdue.edu/.

Ohio State University Extension offers fact sheets that you’ll find helpful at http://ohioline.osu.edu/lines/food.html. Or, contact your OSU Extension office (listed at http://extension.osu.edu/locate-an-office) to see if programs are locally available.

Now is a great time to try fresh herbs

Last week, I used fresh dill weed in a recipe for the first time and was surprised how mild it was — very different from from the dried dill I normally use. I want to try using more fresh herbs. Any ideas on where I should start?

Sure. But you should know that the first rule of cooking with fresh herbs is this: There are no rules. Have fun and experiment, using small amounts at first as you figure out what you like.

Using herbs is a great way to add rich flavor to foods. They are often touted as alternatives to salt, which is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, but they can also add zest when you reduce sugar or fat in a recipe.

Ohio State University Extension has a free fact sheet, “Selecting, Storing and Using Fresh Herbs,” available to download at http://go.osu.edu/ohiolineherbs. Some of the advice it offers includes:

  • Handle fresh herbs gently. Oils that give herbs their aroma and flavor readily escape from the leaves, seeds and stems if they’re injured.
  • If you have more of an herb than what you can use immediately, you can store it in the refrigerator for a week or more by trimming off the ends of the stems on the diagonal and putting them upright in a tall glass or vase with an inch of water. Cover it loosely with a plastic bag, allowing air to circulate. Change the water daily.
  • Extended cooking will weaken the flavor of fresh herbs, so for soups or stews, add them in the last 45 minutes of cooking. On the other hand, in cold foods such as dips, dressings, cheeses or cold vegetables, add fresh herbs several hours or overnight before serving.
  • If you’re not familiar with the flavor of a new herb, mix it with margarine or butter and let it set for about an hour. Then spread it on a plain cracker to taste.

The fact sheet also lists some popular fresh herbs, from anise to thyme, and suggests dishes to try them in.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has some tips in an online slide show, “Flavor Your Meals: Must-Have Summer Herbs,” at http://bit.ly/flavorherbs. It offers information on using both favorite and uncommon fresh herbs, including rosemary, mint, basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, bee balm, chives, lavender and lemon verbena.

Another good reference on using fresh herbs (and, actually, for all things culinary) is the book “The New Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. It has thousands of entries on foods and cooking techniques, as well as herbs and spices. Take a look — you might be surprised at what you don’t know.