There is much debate over snacking – should you snack? Does it increase your metabolic rate? Does it cause you to overeat? What should you snack on? These are all good questions as snacking can be helpful provided it is on healthy options, and in appropriate portion sizes.
Snacking is typically used to help us get through long periods between main meals. Snacks help to keep our energy levels stable, delay hunger and to prevent overeating at our next meal. During the day your levels of blood sugar (also called blood glucose) can drop if you do not eat frequently. This is because your body continues to use carbohydrates as fuel for the muscles and the brain. Unfortunately the brain cannot rely on other sources of fuel to function so it must have a regular supply of carbohydrates. You may be familiar with the experience of feeling mentally drained and finding it hard to concentrate and make decisions when it has been a long time since you last ate. After having a small carbohydrate based snack you seem to perk up – this is because the blood sugar levels have been increased, and therefore more fuel is available for the brain.
Snacking also helps delay hunger. If you are hungry you are much more likely to eat something which is not ideal (think chocolate bars or packets of crisps) and overeat at your next meal. If you are watching your weight this can be disastrous as the extra calories quickly add up. A snack will tide you over and prevent you from being excessively hungry when you sit down for your next meal.
Although it is important to supply your body with energy and prevent hunger between meals, you should not go overboard. It can be easy to consume too many calories if you allow your snacks to be too large or you make an unhealthy choice. A good guideline is to look for foods that are less than 250 calories as this is an appropriate amount for a snack. If you are very active you may need more energy.
Snacks not treats
It is important to understand that treats are not snacks. This means that chocolate bars, crisps, candy and sodas are not snacks – they are treats. If you consume treat foods as a snack you will quickly consume too many calories and may gain weight. If you snack you must choose a healthy snack option. Many treats are high in fat (and most of it is ‘bad’ saturated fat), refined sugar and salt (sodium). They also tend to be high glycemic index meaning that they give you a short, quick burst of energy but this does not last long. You will often find yourself wanting more of the treat food to get that burst of energy again.
Healthy snack options
If you are looking to incorporate healthy snack options into your diet look for snacks that are based on fruits, vegetables, reduced fat dairy products, nuts and seeds and wholegrain cereals. Good examples include;
Fruits and vegetables:
- Celery filled with hummus or reduced fat cream cheese
- An apple, orange or other piece of fruit
- Raw carrots dipped in hummus or salsa
- Raw capsicum dipped in hummus or salsa
- Fruit salad with yoghurt or reduced fat custard
- Cherry tomatoes with asparagus spears
- Homemade smoothie with fruits (kiwifruit, strawberries and a little reduced fat milk)
- Berries with yoghurt
- Dried fruit (apricots, figs, dates, peaches, nectarines)
Reduced fat dairy products:
- Reduced fat milk
- Reduced fat yoghurt
- Reduced fat custard
- Ricotta cheese with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes on wholegrain crackers
- Reduced fat cheese on wholegrain crackers
Nuts and seeds
- Raw nut mix
- Raw nuts mix with dried fruit
- Peanut (or any other nut) butter on wholegrain crackers
- Seed mix
- A low fat wholegrain muesli or cereal bar
- Wholegrain bread as toast with a banana or peanut butter on top
- Oats made into a porridge or bircher muesli
- Oaty topping on reduced fat yoghurt with berries
- A wholegrain sandwich with salad and lean meat
- Small rice, quinoa or pasta salad
- Untoasted muesli with reduced fat yoghurt and berries
There are many snack options available but you should choose what suits you best. If you do not get too hungry before meals you will need a smaller snack, however if you are very active you may need a bigger snack. Snacking will help to stabilise your energy levels and improve mental and physical performance as well as delay the onset of hunger, but you must make a healthy choice. If you choose treat foods over healthy snacks you will have a quick, unsustained burst of energy and consume too many calories.