Snacks are a big contributor to expanding waistlines. Dietitian Catherine Saxelby shows you healthier ways to glide through to the next meal.
Why we’re snacking more
How often have you not had time to sit down for a meal, so you grab a snack to eat on the run? Our fast-paced lives mean we’re reaching for portable snacks instead of three square meals, and it’s causing many of us to pile on weight.
According to recent research, almost one in three Australians say they sometimes eat a snack instead of having a meal. Snacks are a shortcut, or a quick bite to make do when we don’t have time to prepare a meal from scratch. But they can also hold hidden temptations to overeat in an already food-filled world.
While it’s fine to swap an occasional meal for a light snack, the problem we face is eating too many junk food snacks, such as chips and biscuits, or processed snacks glammed up with a ‘superfood’, such as kale or goji berries.
And then there are all those over-the-top ‘treats’ like raw caramel slices and ‘cronuts’ — snacks that can have your entire day’s kilojoule intake in one go!
How often should we eat?
You’ve no doubt heard that eating small, frequent mini-meals during the day is a good way to stave off hunger, prevent overeating, keep your metabolism stimulated and thus burn more kilojoules.
Some studies show this approach is correct, while others conclude you’re better off keeping to three decent-sized main meals with nothing in between.
In fact, the better option is the one that works for you. Either strategy is fine. Just make sure you don’t take in more than your body requires.
Eating regularly stabilises your blood sugar levels and keeps your hunger in check. This is particularly crucial if you have pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, and are trying to lose weight.
Some people with diabetes who are on insulin, or on certain medications, may also need to eat a snack containing carbohydrates between meals, or before going to bed, to prevent a low blood glucose level. If unsure, talk to your dietitian or diabetes educator.
Is snacking just distracted eating?
Often snacking is non-mindful eating. You might find yourself mindlessly munching popcorn at the movies, unconsciously chomping choc biscuits in front of the television, or obliviously scoffing chips at your desk while your mind is wrapped up in a mentally challenging task.
If you notice your kids snack while playing a computer game, or padlocked to their iPad, they might be doing the same thing.
Research shows that when you are distracted or not paying attention to your eating you tend to eat more. That’s because it’s easier to take in many more snack kilojoules than you need before the 20 minutes it takes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full.
How to cope with the 3pm slump
That mid-afternoon low where concentration flags and yawning starts is a common snack trigger. This slump is so well recognised that health experts suspect there’s a biological basis for it.
Many warmer European countries recognise this low point and break for a traditional siesta. If you can grab a half-hour nap, do it — but few of us have this luxury, so focus on getting a good night’s sleep. Seven to nine hours of sleep is recommended each night to keep your appetite hormones in check.
Before you turn to coffee and doughnuts in an attempt to stay awake, consider these two better alternatives that will power you through the afternoon towards your evening meal.
1. Acknowledge your energy is going to plateau at 3pm or 4pm and plan to eat something to tide you over to dinner. Make it nourishing and just filling enough, like a banana with a handful of mixed nuts (slow-release energy with healthy fats), or a mug of thick lentil soup with two grainy crispbreads (protein with slow carbs).
2. Eat a nutritious lunch and ensure that your food intake is balanced. Make sure that you include some low-GI carbs, such as grainy bread, brown rice, or legumes like chickpeas, with a source of protein, such as chicken, eggs, salmon, lentils or other legumes. And make sure there’s some salad or vegetables. Then you can push on through that slump, knowing you’ve nourished your body.
Five strategies for smart snacking
You don’t have to take snacks off the menu completely. Here’s a practical guide to getting the most from your daily nibbles.
1. Check in
Are you really hungry? Could it be you’re actually thirsty? You may feel a little low in energy — but remember, you’re not going to die from lack of food.
2. Keep snacks small
Choose a snack that is the right size (see our portion suggestions in Healthy snacks under 600kJ, below). Eat just enough to quell hunger. Don’t turn it into a meal by overeating.
3. Step up to the plate
Serve your snack on a small plate, bowl or plastic tub. Close the snack packet and put it away. That means there’s no temptation for mindless eating.
4. Snack mindfully
Don’t snack at your desk, in the car or while watching TV, where you’ll fall into automated eating mode. Instead, tune into the different flavour and texture sensations to feel more satisfied.
5. Choose snacks with nutrients
Ditch the biscuits, ice cream or chips. Make snacks contribute vitamins, minerals and fibre, not just refined carbs, sugars and bad fats. Eat whole foods that are not in a packet, such as a handful of nuts, a boiled egg or a piece of fruit.
Six ways to beat boredom snacking
Try these tips when you’re not actually hungry:
Call a friend
Do something active with your hands — apply hand cream, give yourself a manicure, clean, or do a puzzle or needlework
Go out for a short walk (away from the kitchen)
Just sit in the moment and check in with your feelings (what else comes up aside from hunger?)
Read a book or magazine.
Stop mindless snacking
The next time you feel the urge to reach for biscuits or chips, pause for a moment and ask yourself these six questions:
Am I really hungry now? (Remember, it’s okay to be a little)
Am I eating out of boredom? Or tiredness? Or anger? Will eating change my mood?
Am I craving something sweet, crunchy or salty?
Can I stop at just one? Or will this snack lead to more overeating?
Do I always snack at this time of day out of habit?
Is my energy really that low. Or would stepping away from my desk for a moment help.