Snacking, contrary to popular belief, can be a part of a healthy diet. The key is to make mindful choices and consume in moderation.
“Incorporating snacks between meals can help provide consistent energy that your body needs to perform well — whether that’s physically at the gym or mentally in the office,” says Shanna Hutcheson, Kansas-based registered dietitian and founder of Wellness for the Win. Mindful snacking can also help regulate blood sugar and keep you from overeating at mealtime.
“Another benefit of snacking is that it provides an opportunity to sneak in some bonus nutrition into your daily diet — think fruits, veggies, cheese, nuts and seeds,” adds Hutcheson.
So, how can you enjoy in-between meals without packing on the pounds? By following these simple do’s and don’ts of healthy snacking:
Plan ahead. “Don’t wait until the last minute to decide what you’re going to snack on,” says Rhian Allen, founder of The Healthy Mummy and author of The Busy Mom’s Guide to Weight Loss on a Budget. Planning your in-between meals in advance can help you steer clear of unhealthy options such as sugary donuts, pretzels or chips. “Try to be intentional. Add some healthy snack items to your weekly grocery list so you are prepared when hunger strikes at work or on-the-go,” says Hutcheson. Keep some ready-to-eat snack options (like unsalted nuts, unsweetened dried fruit, low-sodium jerky, roasted chickpeas, dark chocolate, etc.) in your handbag or desk drawer at all times. And if you want to switch things up, prepare a batch of these delish yet healthy make-ahead snacks over the weekend — so you can nosh on them all week.
Watch what you eat. Instead of turning to the first thing you see in the office vending machine, choose your snack wisely. “Think of snacking as a mini-meal instead of a quick bite,” says Allen. “If you view a snack this way, you are more likely to choose a nutritiously balanced option instead of junk food,” she tells. The simplest rule of healthy snacking is to stick with whole foods as much as possible (think fresh fruit, veggies, whole grains like quinoa, nuts and seeds), says Dr Rachel Paul, New York-based registered dietitian and mastermind behind the blog, The College Nutritionist. In addition, “try to combine carbohydrate-rich foods with fat and protein-rich options instead of eating them by itself,” recommends the behavioural nutrition expert. So, for example, instead of eating an entire apple, try half an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter, she suggests. Similarly, you can pair whole wheat crackers with tuna or mix fresh berries with plain yogurt.
Set a time for snacking. “Having a set snack time can be quite helpful,” says Dr Paul. “Ideally, it should be a time right in between lunch and dinner. However, some people who eat early breakfast may also need a morning snack in between breakfast and lunch to keep their energy levels consistent,” she tells. Unless you’re hungry of course, avoid snacking after dinner or before going to bed, adds the dietitian.
Stay hydrated. Sometimes, mild dehydration masquerades as hunger pangs. When you don’t drink enough water, your body receives mixed signals from your hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls both appetite and thirst), making you think you’re hungry when you’re actually thirsty. So, the next time you feel peckish between meals, try drinking some water first. Besides plain H2O, you can up your intake of liquids by sipping on unsweetened tea, homemade soups and smoothies, iced green tea, fresh fruit or vegetable juice, infused water and skimmed milk. Meanwhile, stay away from sugar-laden beverages like soda and energy drinks as much as possible. “When it comes to ranking beverages best for our health, sugary drinks fall at the bottom of the list because they provide so many calories and virtually no other nutrients,” states a Harvard School of Public Health report. “The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories, almost all of them from added sugar,” notes the report. Regularly consuming such sugary drinks, without slashing calories intake elsewhere, can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases, adds the HSPH report.
Get more sleep. “Studies show that lack of sleep can cause a change in the levels of hunger hormones (ghrelin) in your body which can lead to an increased appetite and/or cravings for calorie-dense foods,” notes Hutcheson. This is why it’s crucial to make sleep a priority and aim for seven to eight hours of restful sleep every night, says the dietitian.
Keep a track of what you eat. While constantly obsessing over calories isn’t a healthy habit, tracking your food intake reasonably is a great way to see what you’re putting in your body and how it affects you, says Dr Paul. It can help you easily analyze your eating patterns, nutrition intake, portioning and identify your good and bad food habits. While monitoring your in-between meals, note that ideally, a snack should consist of carbs, protein and some healthy fats, says Allen. Also, “the portion size should be smaller, packing around 120-200 calories,” she tells. This is because a snack isn’t a substitute for lunch or dinner. “It’s only supposed to take the edge off until your next meal,” the nutrition expert points out.
Eat when you’re not hungry. Don’t mindlessly munch on snacks all day. Instead, pay attention to your body’s hunger cues. “Grab a snack only when you feel physically hungry. Or, when you need to eat something because you know you’ll be occupied for the next few hours — for instance, when you’ve to sit in meetings — and may need some fuel to hold you over,” says Hutcheson. Don’t eat simply because you’re bored or stressed out. “You might feel temporarily satisfied when you eat out of boredom or stress, but it will make your body feel heavy and sluggish afterwards,” says Dr Paul. So, avoid using food as a crutch. If you feel overwhelmed or bogged down, try alternative coping strategies such as deep breathing, meditation, journaling, spending time outdoors or talking to a loved one or a therapist.
Keep junk food around. Packed with added sugar, sodium, simple carbs and trans fats, fast foods are high in calories and offer little nutrition. Regularly bingeing on processed foods such as chips, cookies, pizza and fries has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among other health issues. This is why slashing down your intake of unhealthy, processed foods is essential. One of the easiest ways to do that is to avoid keeping junk food around at your home and work station. “If it’s not available, it’s much harder to eat,” notes Dr Paul. But that doesn’t mean you’ve to give it up altogether. For tackling cravings, “buy them in single-serving containers. And only bring one serving with you to work so there’s not an opportunity to overeat,” she tells. In addition, stock up your kitchen and fridge with healthy grab-and-go snacks like homemade granola, string cheese, whole wheat crackers and canned tuna, banana and peanut butter, fresh fruit salad, dates, lentil soup and homemade trail mix. Also, “choose dips and toppings made from vegetables, rather than cheese or butter to cut down on saturated fat and sodium,” suggests USDA.
Eat while you’re working. How often have you snacked your way through a bag of chips while working on the computer or doing some other task, only to realize that you still feel hungry? This happens because your mind is distracted when you eat while multitasking. Consequently, it’s unable to correctly interpret hunger cues and you end up overindulging. Moreover, studies also show that distracted eating makes food taste bland. This is why it’s important to eat mindfully in order to make healthy eating sustainable. “Mindful snacking fills your cup up in more ways than just nutrition,” says Allen. “The amount of satisfaction you get from savouring each bite of your healthy snack platter is far greater than mindlessly grazing on chips or cookies at your desk,” she tells. So, step away from whatever you’re doing for five minutes and focus on all of your senses when you’re eating. Take in the aroma and savor each bite. “If you are satisfied with a snack, you are less likely to go back for more,” Allen points out. Another easy trick to enjoy your favorite snacks while on a healthy diet is to practice portion control. Take the food out of its packaging and eat it in a small plate or single-serving container in order to prevent overeating, suggests Allen. Here are some more effective portion control tips.
Ignore your cravings. “If you truly want to eat something, but repeatedly deny your cravings, it may eventually lead to a binge,” notes Hutcheson. So, if you really want to have a donut, have one. Or, if you want to have a piece of cake at your colleague’s promotion party, don’t force yourself to do otherwise. The key is to limit the consumption of these not-so-healthy foods instead of giving them up completely. “You’ll feel satisfied even with smaller amounts if you allow yourself to eat these foods occasionally — and know that you can have them anytime you want because they aren’t completely off-limits,” says Hutcheson.
Eat something you don’t like. “Don’t force yourself to eat foods that you don’t like simply because they are considered ‘healthy’ or ‘popular’, advises Hutcheson. Food is supposed to be both nourishing and pleasurable. So, if you don’t like kale chips don’t munch on them just because they’re “good for you”. Try other alternatives like homemade parsnip chips, zucchini chips or carrot chips. If you hate eating raw nuts, try toasting them and tossing in salads, stir-fries or plain yogurt. “There are plenty of options out there — play around with new foods and different styles to find out what you like and keep things fun,” tells Hutcheson.
Skip your meals. “If we go an extended amount of time without fuel, we are much more likely to gravitate toward the first thing we see — which could be cookies or donuts in the break room,” says Hutcheson. “While these foods can absolutely be included in a healthy, balanced diet, they’re not likely to leave you feeling full and energized after you eat them,” she notes. This is why having a well-balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner is essential. “They can provide lasting energy and reduce those cravings between meals,” says Hutcheson. Also, “make sure to include some protein, healthy fats and fiber-rich carbohydrates (like fruits, veggies and whole grains) in your meals — to stay full longer,” adds the dietitian.
Beat yourself up if you make a less healthy choice. “Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be all or nothing. What you do most of the time is what matters,” says Hutcheson. Learning to respect and nourish your body by making choices that help you feel your best is essential. But that doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up every time you take an extra slice of cake at a party, eat a whole bar of chocolate or overindulge at Thanksgiving dinner (let’s be honest, who doesn’t?). Instead of reeling with guilt, shift your focus to how you can get back on the healthy eating saddle. Remind yourself about how far you’ve come and keep a positive attitude.