Snacking- that eating behavior that occurs at various times during the day. Dictionaries state snacking is small portions of food, or a light meal, normally consumed in between meals.
In the United States, snacking is at an all-time high. Studies show that people consume close to 600 calories a day in 'snacks', and most of those calories come from drinks like juice and soda. This increase in snacking in the last couple of decades may be one reason for the obesity epidemic.
Certainly, food companies love that we are snacking more than in the past. Snacking provides a place in our diets for their products- chips, soda, popcorn, crackers, individually-wrapped cheeses and hummus, sliced up fruit, and more. Unfortunately, many snack foods out there are not satisfying and just play into our brain's desire for quick-acting carbs, making us craving more and more sweet and salty foods.
So, what is snacking really? What kind of food constitutes a snack? How much is enough? When is it appropriate to snack? The line between snacks and meals is certainly blurred.
There is no definition of snacking that is 'right' or 'perfect'. And, not everyone needs to snack despite what we're told. What is important is to eat a snack of one to three whole foods when hungry. The job of a snack is to sustain you, fuel you, and give you nourishment. It is not to give you something to do or cover an emotion you're having, as much as some food companies would like.
The best snack foods are whole foods. Things like plain Greek yogurt, fruit, vegetables, hummus, edamame, whole grain toast, etc. A well-balanced snack may be one food, like a fruit, if you know you're eating a meal in an hour. Or, it can include multiple foods that are rich in protein, carbohydrates and fiber. For instance, a Greek yogurt with a dollop of nut butter and a banana if you are going to eat a meal in 2-3 hours is likely what will keep you statisfied and nourished.
Everyone has a different needs for how many snacks they need each day. Someone trying to lose weight may do better without snacks if they are not hungry between meals. An athlete in training, however, may need at least 3 snacks a day, and they need to be rich in protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat. And, some pregnant women, especially those with multiples, may need to eat snacks between meals to meet their nutritional needs for overall calories, protein, calcium, and iron.
There is no time you should or should not snack. You want to pay more attention to your internal, physical signals. Have a snack when hungry and stop snacking when full. Sounds simple, I know, but it is hard. It requires guaging what hunger feels like for you, and what fullness feels like. Then, it takes practicing eating like that and adjusting the rest of the day based on your physiological signs of hunger and fullness.
Snacking is a complicated topic. My recommendations are to-
1. Pay attention to your own body. When hungry, do you get stomach rumbling or start feeling a bit anxious? And, when you're full do you feel a sense of satisfaction or a complete calmness in your stomach?
Some people, especially those who are not eating enough may not get hunger signals. Instead, they may feel themselves dizzy, with a headache, or moody. This often comes when we go too long without eating. And, sometimes, people who don't eat enough on a regular basis may not feel anything! What brings the appetite back is consistent, and adequate, fueling.
2. Once you identify if you're hungry between meals, and how much food it takes for you to be satisfied, plan whole food-based snacks ahead of time. If you have no plan, chances are you'll attack the vending machine or reach into that box of chocolates on your desk. Better to have the snack ready to go so that you don't have to make a food decision while hungry.
Sample snacks that have balanced protein + carb + fiber + healthy fat, and will likely provide satisfaction for a few hours are:
- Peanut butter + 2 slices whole wheat toast and an apple
- Apple and peanut butter
- Cottage cheese and pineapple
- Hummus and carrots
- 6 inch tortilla with a few slices of turkey and cheese
- Edamame and a piece of fruit
- Leftover meal ( 1/2 portion)
If you're eating soon before the snack, you may only need one food like a cup of cantelope or a 6 ounce Greek yogurt.
3. When eating snacks, concentrate on it versus doing other things at the same time. Sitting at your desk and staring at the computer screen while shoveling food in your mouth will likely lead you to blow by your fullness signals.
4. Adjust your other meals accordingly. If you get full after a snack and find yourself not ready to eat dinner at at 6pm, don't. This involves decreasing rules around meal timing and being more flexible.
Hope this clears up some questions about snacking! Feel free to leave comments.