Snacking is an important part of any eating plan. Research shows that snacking may help people maintain or lose weight, likely because it keeps you from overeating at future meals (or raiding the fridge while you’re making dinner!). Snacking can also help keep your energy consistent through the day, which is not only helpful for weight management, but also for mood stability, brain function, and physical activity performance. This last part is particularly important for athletes – we need energy to get through the workout, especially if it’s been more than a few hours since our last meal.
When should you snack?
The general rule of thumb is to plan snacks when there will be more than 3-4 hours between meals. For most people, that will mean a morning snack between breakfast and lunch and an afternoon snack between lunch and dinner. Depending on the day and when workouts are planned, that can change! I often have 2 smaller afternoon snacks, particularly if I’m exercising in the evening. It’s just what works for me. The best rule is to listen to your body. If you’re hungry, but not ready for a full meal, have a healthy snack.
Plan out your snacks just as you would your meals. Think about when you will eat your meals and when you will go for a run (or do other planned exercise) and then build snacks in between the meals, but at least an hour before a run to leave time for digestion. This is, of course, flexible and as I mentioned above listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry.
Bring snacks to work, in the car, or wherever you are going for the day. If you keep your snacks on-hand, then you won’t be left standing in front of the vending machine trying to find a healthy option (it likely doesn’t exist!) Don’t wait until you are starving either, because it’s easy to make poor snack choices when you are (hello sugar craving).
What should you snack on?
Choosing the right snacks is just as important as the act of snacking itself!
I’ve heard people say that snacking is “bad” (most often from people trying to lose weight), but snacking gets its bad rap from all of the processed, unhealthful snacks available. Choosing to snack on a bag of potato chips or cookies, for example, will likely leave you hungry again in an hour, which results in you eating again and possibly consuming more calories than needed. Instead, choose a fiber or protein filled snack, to keep you full for longer. Fruits, vegetables, raw nuts, some granola bars (read those labels), yogurt, and hummus with pita make for excellent snacks that require little to no preparation.
It’s unusual for me to have time to sit down to eat a snack so I like to eat snacks that are simple, easy to transport, and require little or no prep. Some of my go-to snacks are Kashi TLC Cherry dark chocolate granola bars or Larabars, baby carrots with hummus, Babybel cheeses with a piece of fruit, homemade trail mix (nuts, dried cranberries, and sometimes a little dark chocolate), or yogurt. I also sometimes eat a bowl of cereal or a half turkey sandwich (or PB&J) if I’m hungrier. Snack foods don’t have to be any different than those you would eat for a meal – it’s just a smaller portion.
Though snacking is beneficial to an eating plan, it’s easy for it to quickly go from helpful to hurtful if you choose the wrong snacks, snack mindlessly, or don’t pay attention to portion sizes.
A few tips…
If it’s a packaged food, educate yourself by reading the nutrition label to see what an appropriate portion size is for each food. Then, measure out the appropriate portion size beforeeating. Put the package away before you eat so you aren’t tempted to go back for more. One of the easiest foods to overeat, in my opinion, are nuts. They are a great snack, but you only need to eat 15-20 (1 oz) nuts in a sitting. It’s easy to eat double or triple that if you’re not paying attention! Dried fruit comes in close second for this.
Choose snacks that will fill you up and provide beneficial nutrients. I mentioned this earlier, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning again! Think of snacks as mini meals that add to your vitamin, mineral, and macro nutrient (carbs, fat, protein) needs for the day. Stay away from sugar filled snacks that will spike your blood sugar and lead to an energy crash shortly afterwards.
Snack when you’re hungry. This may seem obvious, but boredom, stress, anxiety, exhaustion, or even thirst/dehydration can be mistaken for hunger. If you feel like having a snack, think about whether or not you’re really hungry. If you think you’re just stressed or bored, go for a short walk first or make a phone call and see if that makes a difference.
Snack before you get too hungry. Don’t let yourself get to the point of starvation before eating a snack – this will likely lead to overeating and drops then spikes in your energy level, which is never good.
What are your favorite snacks? Do you plan your snacks out for the day or do you think you need to tweak your eating plan a little?
(Sarah is a 2nd year grad student pursuing her MS in Nutrition Communication at Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. She is also completing the requirements to become a registered dietitian and will begin her dietetic internship in 2012. Sarah is also a certified spin instructor and an avid runner and regularly participates in road races from 5k to a 1/2 marathons. Follow her on Twitter @SpinnerSarah and at her personal blog Food and Fitness Friend .)