Is snacking a healthy way to manage hunger and avoid overeating or just another opportunity to eat too much food? As with most things nutrition, the answer depends on the details. Snacking can be a healthy part of any nutrition plan or it can lead to unhealthy food behaviors.
First- the Downside of Snacking
Culture influences how, what, when and how much we eat. Snacking is no exception and can be accepted as part of the norm or frowned upon. The French are a good example of a culture that traditionally limits food to meal times (this is changing as their food system becomes more industrial). Cultural food rules that set these kinds of eating boundaries help people navigate overabundant food environments. In contrast, the US has a culture of snacking which is trouble when food is available everywhere you go-gas stations, bookstores, hallway vending machines in schools and businesses. And food manufacturers have created “on the go” options so you can always have a bite within reach. Fast food pioneered the meal in the car, but more recently foods like drinkable yogurt (“go-gurt”), plastic containers of hummus with pretzels, microwaveable single serve drinkable soups, and of course single serve bags of chips, cookies, crackers…make it all to easy to just eat and eat and eat.
According to a study out of Purdue University from 2011, snacking makes up most of the increased calories consumed by Americans over the past few decades. Researchers found that we are eating about 220 more calories from snacks in the past 30 years, making up nearly 25% of our daily calories. Additionally, about half of these between meal calories come from beverages- like soda, coffee drinks, juices and smoothies. So even though this amount of snacking equates to a fourth meal worth of calories, we don’t think of it this way and reduce the size of our other meals.
An Argument for the Snack
A well planned snack can help you avoid eating out of extreme hunger or cravings. Many people struggle with late night snacking, often turning to sweets and junk foods. If there is more than four hours between your dinner and bedtime, you may need a snack, and by planning what you eat you will avoid rooting through the cupboards for that high fat, sugar, salt box that leads to overconsumption.
The Bottom Line
Is snacking for you? Think about how you eat to answer this question for yourself. If you swing between strong hunger and over stuffed then adding a snack between meals may help you maintain more even blood sugar levels which improves metabolic function, leads to healthier choices at meal times, and may prevent energy crashes. On the other hand, if you struggle with emotional eating and tend to crave and eat chips or sweets between meals you may benefit from the French rule of only eating during meal times. In either case, experiment with a different approach to your meal timing and see how you feel. Just give it some time, it takes a few days to a few weeks before your body will adjust to changes in your meal pattern.
Healthy Snacking Is
- Whole food. Contains fiber. Contains protein. Contains complex carbohydrates.
- Likely 200 calories or less
- A food that you can eat a small portion of and be satisfied. Ditch the foods that drive you to eat the whole bag.
- Does not have a lot added sugar, salt, processed carbohydrates and additives.
- Planned for. A study by the CDC this year found that the average American ate nearly 1,300 calories from food at work. This is often freely available snack foods like salted nuts, candy, and chips. Avoid these impulse, unhealthy foods that drive over-eating by planning your healthy snacks.
- A Few Snacking Ideas
- A piece of fruit or a cup of berries, grapes, or melon
- A handful of nuts – or trail mix (make sure there’s minimal added sugar)
- A spoonful of nut butter, cottage cheese, hummus or 1 ounce of cheese with an apple or celery or a few crackers or spread on a slice of bread or a 1/2 pita.
- Hard boiled egg
- Plain yogurt with fruit or a sprinkling of granola
- Roasted chickpeas or popcorn
- Leftovers – eat a small portion of a prior meal to get you through to the next one.
- More snacking ideas from the Mayo Clinic.
- Happy eating,