Are snacks the unhealthiest meal?
Recently I asked a question on my Facebook page: What is the hardest meal for you to eat healthy? The overwhelming majority of people said: Snacks! Even though when I review diet diaries and see that it’s the snacks that tend to sabotage a good day’s eating this still surprised me, I guess because I’m generally not much of a snacker. So I had a think about why this is such a hard meal to eat healthy:
- Snacking is often mindless – you grab something to snack on without thinking about it, and it’s only after it’s in your belly that you say ‘oh… whoops’.
- Cravings, especially sugar cravings make you reach for the chocolate bar or sweet biscuit over the vegetables.
- It’s easier to justify snacking on junk food because you’re eating it in smaller portions.
- Foods packaged as ‘healthy’ snacks are often crammed full of sugar and preservatives, and unless you’ve studied nutrition it can be difficult to analyze labels and know what products are lying to you. A common example is the myriad of supposedly healthy ‘low fat’ snacks available which are teeming with refined sugar.
- Snack choices are often controlled by our emotions. If you’re doing some serious emotional eating, then snacking is probably happening more often than morning an afternoon tea as well, so quantity becomes an issue here too.
- Boredom makes you eat more. Watching mindless TV shows is often accompanied by binge snacking.
- You realize that your blood sugar level has dropped so you think you need something sugary to pick it back up again. Yes, something sugary will get you out of a slump but it will then send your blood sugars on a rollercoaster of highs and lows, meaning that you keep chasing them all day.
- You’re really hungry and you don’t care what you eat as long as it’s now! This usually happens if you’re not prepared or haven’t eaten a good breakfast.
- That chocolate bar looks so good….
Ok, wow. It seems that there’s a lot of reasons why snacking is hard to get right.
If you take some steps to plan ahead for the day and understand where your snacking weaknesses lie, it can be easier to make good choices, and you’ll feel and look much better for it.
There’s nothing wrong with snacking. Having a small bite to eat between meals is a great way to give your metabolism a little kick and keep you from becoming ravenously hungry later, which can lead to overeating. Snacking is also fun and tasty, helps you to regain focus and concentration and can be a great way to socialize.
But there is a difference between snacking and compulsive, emotional or hormonal eating. There is also a difference between snacking and bingeing.
- Eat a good breakfast. This will help you keep your blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day to reduce cravings from dropping blood sugar levels. Aim to eat a balance of protein, good fats and complex carbohydrates. An example is muesli with yoghurt (not low fat) and berries.
- Instead of saying “I won’t eat biscuits/lollies/chocolate today”, make your goal a positive one, such as “I will eat 2 pieces of fruit today” or “I will eat 5 green things today”. Research has shown that if you focus on avoiding a food, you’re more likely to eat less healthy.
- Identify your snacking weaknesses and think of a strategy to avoid it. Do you eat unhealthy snacks because it’s on the bench at work? Keep your healthy snack food on your desk so that you can see it and remember your goal. Do you eat when you’re bored? Take up a hobby (e.g. knitting) which you could also do in front of the TV.
- Get organised. Part of the reason our snacking habits wreak such dietary havoc is that we make our choices haphazardly, leaving us highly susceptible to whims. Instead, plan your snacking into your day: decide in advance what you’re going to eat, and set up a plan as to how you’re going to make it happen. Look at the list of snacks below. You’ll find many are suitable to keep in your handbag or desk drawer, so they’re available when you need them. That way, when stress strikes, you’ll have something healthy on hand to counter the urge to indulge in something fatty or sugary.
- Keep temptation out of reach. If you know that you have difficulty resisting certain snacks, keep them out of the house! You’re less likely to eat chocolate at 10 o’clock at night if you have to get in the car and go to the shops to get it.
- Choose high fibre and protein. A nutrient-dense snack keeps you satisfied for longer, so you’re less likely to over-eat later in the day. Your best choices are snacks that are high in protein and/or fibre. Compared to those that are fatty or sugary, these snacks also improve your glucose and insulin balance throughout the day. Include a few serves of whole grains in your main meals every day for the same reasons – they’ll help you feel full, and improve your insulin sensitivity.
- Think about what you’re eating. The worst culprit for mindless eating is the TV. When you eat in front of the TV your brain is less able to recognise that you are full, and you don’t digest your food as well. There’s a time lag of up to 20 minutes between your tummy becoming full and your brain realising that it’s had enough food. The faster you eat, the more calories you guzzle down before that signal gets through.
- Turn the TV off. The more you watch TV, the more you’re likely to snack, and the less likely you are to realise when you’re full. Plus more viewing exposes you to more advertising, and guess what? That makes you more likely to buy and eat junk food. Research shows that vividly recalling your last meal helps to decrease your food intake later. That’s one of the reasons that eating while watching TV increases subsequent snacking – if you’re too distracted to pay attention to what you’ve been eating, it’s almost like it never happened. Mindless eating, such as in front of the TV contributes to an enormous number of weight problems and has even been documented in preschool-aged children. It’s scientifically proven that the transfixing effects of television make you eat more. In part, the distraction of the TV dampens your brain’s ability to register that you’re full, so you just keep on putting food in your mouth. However, the calorie promoting effects persist even after you’ve turned the telly off. For example, when offered a snack of cookies in the afternoon, women who had watched television while eating their lunch ate more than women who had eaten their previous meal without TV.
- Aim for adaptability. Be flexible. Life is for living, so if you really do feel like hot chips occasionally, don’t deprive yourself. You’ve got a better chance of maintaining healthier snacking habits if you allow yourself a little indulgence now and then!
Some snack options
¼ cup almonds and piece of fruit
Natural yoghurt and a piece of fruit
Natural yoghurt with grated apple and pecans
Cottage cheese + tuna with a raw veggie serve
1 piece of fruit + 1 hard boiled egg
Hard cheese (matchbox size) with a piece of fruit
1/2 raw veggie serving and hummus or baba hummus
1/2 raw veggie serving and cottage cheese
Whenever veggies are mentioned, choose from:
- 2 medium carrots (can be sticks, grated or whole)
- 1 cup green beans
- 1 cup red or green cabbage
- 1 cup broccoli
- 2 stalks celery
- 2 asparagus spears
- 1 cup cauliflower
Whenever a fruit is mentioned, choose from:
- 1 apple
- 1 pear
- 2 small plums
- ½ grapefruit
- 1 orange
- 1 kiwi fruit
- 1 fig
- 2 small clementines/mandarins
- 1 ¼ cup strawberries
- 2/3 cup blueberries, raspberries or blackberries
- 1 peach