10 Tips for Healthy Snacking
My philosophy with nutrition is always to keep things simple wherever possible. While we each have different, specific requirements, and these will change over time to meet our shifting needs, we can still rely on a few common sense strategies to help us cut through the noise and confusion that has built up around healthy eating.
One strategy that I suggest to many clients is to reduce snacking, or even cut it out completely, and aim instead to eat three nourishing, filling and balanced meals a day, fasting for 4-5 hours in between. Most of us do not need to constantly graze to eat well, particularly as ‘snack’ foods tend to be less nutritionally balanced than main meals. It is also a myth that healthy eating requires regular snacking, or that it is necessary for maintaining blood sugar. For most of us, particularly if we are generally healthy, three meals a day is fine.
In fact, I have also found that many people need this 3-4 hour period of fasting to feel hungry enough to enjoy a big plateful of vegetables and a decent portion of protein at their next meal. We were probably all warned against ‘spoiling our appetite’ by snacking between meals as children, but the same also applies to us as adults. We need a hearty appetite to tackle a pile of vegetables with enthusiasm.
Of course, there will be exceptions to this rule: Young children, those who are unwell, those who have problems with blood sugar balance, athletes, pregnant or breastfeeding women, those who are trying to maintain or gain weight and various other groups, may benefit from healthy snacking. But for generally healthy adults, snacking is not essential.
There are also occasions for all of us when snacking is inevitable. Unforeseen circumstances mean we’re missing a meal, a meeting overran and we need to grab something quickly before heading off to the next engagement, or we are genuinely stomach-hungry between meals. Then the aim is to make the majority of our snacks as nutritious as our meals, so our body has access to all the essential nutrients we need to function optimally.
To help you put that into practice, here are 10 tips to help you feel in control of snacking, and where necessary, to enjoy it in a healthy and nourishing way.
1. Focus first on nourishing meals
It’s important to focus first on mealtime balance before doing anything else with snacking habits. Our bodies need to be well nourished to give us a chance of change. If you want more advice on how to create a balanced meal, please see this article on how to build a healthy plate. And if you need a reminder, here are the food categories for you.
In summary, think: ½ a plate of vegetables + ¼ plate of protein + a thumbful healthy fats + a pop of flavour at every meal. Add some wholegrains or unprocessed carbohydrates if you’re particularly hungry.
There is lots more background information on this, along with how to create a balanced diet overall (plus plenty of tasty recipes) in my third book, Nourish & Glow: The 10-day Plan.
2. Don’t forget protein
It’s worth highlighting that eating enough high quality protein at every meal is particularly helpful if you’d like to cut down your snacking. It is the nutrient that is thought to have the biggest impact on reducing hunger, while also helping to stabilise blood sugar levels. Protein doesn’t always have to be animal protein (eggs, dairy, meat, fish), but could also be plant-based (nuts, seeds, tofu, pulses, beans). Aim for a palm-sized portion (approximately ¼ plate) at each meal.
A top tip is to start each meal with two mouthfuls of protein before eating the other items on your plate – it really does help you to feel fuller quicker, and for longer.
3. Have a good breakfast (if you eat it)
Breakfast tends to be the time of day that most of my clients struggle to achieve nutritional balance. Many traditional ‘breakfast’ foods are relatively low in protein but high in refined carbohydrates (processed cereal, pastries, jam on toast). This sets us up on a blood sugar rollercoaster that impacts us for the rest of the day – making it much, much harder to avoid snacking. Take a look at this article for over 80 ideas of healthy, nutritious breakfasts (that all contain some protein).
Having said that, some people find that they do best without breakfast, enjoying a longer overnight fast instead. This does, however, mean that the remaining two meals should be packed full of nutrition, as you’ll need to meet your entire day’s requirements with 33% less opportunity.
4. Have a drink first
It is very common to mistake thirst for hunger. Dehydration can make us feel lethargic and sluggish, so we may find ourselves reaching for a sugary pick-me-up to counteract the slump in energy. Drink enough water or herbal teas to stay on top of thirst and to keep your urine a pale yellow. Remember that sugary drinks (even smoothies and fruit juices) may also have a rapid effect on your blood sugar levels and can therefore be considered ‘snacks’ too. I would also put very milky drinks into the ‘snack’ category too, such as milkshakes, lattes or glasses of milk. So for quenching thirst, the best (and cheapest) option is water. Add some lemon, orange, ice, rosemary, mint or berries for a flavour pop if this helps you to enjoy it more.
5. Don’t worry about occasional snacks
Of course there will be times when it is necessary to snack. This is real life and honouring true hunger is very important, regardless of when you last ate a meal. So when you do need a top-up between meals, try to make it another opportunity to nourish your body. Think of snacks as ‘mini meals’, rather than just grabbing whatever is most convenient. When you can, include some sort of fresh fruit or vegetables and protein as a baseline.
Healthy snack ideas might include:
- An apple (sliced) & 1 tbsp peanut or almond butter
- Some cucumber, pepper or carrot sticks & 1 tbsp hummus
- A small bowl of natural yoghurt (4 tbsp roughly) & a handful of berries
- A boiled egg, some rocket & a handful of cherry tomatoes
- A slice of rye toast with some nut butter or tahini and squished blueberries
- A small handful of almonds – about 8 (or other nuts of your choice) and a satsuma, plum or a pear.
- A small portion of a leftover meal
- A ‘protein’ snack pot (if you are out and about – M&S and Pret both do versions of this).
But equally, don’t worry if the occasion calls for something decadent – just make it a conscious and positive decision to enjoy eating it mindfully.
6. Don’t be scared of hunger between meals
If you are in the habit of eating regularly between meals, be prepared to initially feel a little hungry around the times you usually snacked. This can be due to your body’s habitual release of hunger hormones, or simply from the emotional comfort you gained from taking a break from your day to snack. It takes around 3-6 weeks of consistent effort to re-train your body and mind, but it usually gets much easier after that.
7. Minimise visual cues to snack
This is my number one easy ‘hack’ to minimise snacking: Don’t have snack foods out where you can see them, or in cupboards that you often reach into. Put them in opaque containers, ideally out of their original packaging, behind closed doors. And if you buy biscuits, don’t leave leave them in the same cupboard that you keep your mugs and tea! It means that every time you reach for a cuppa, you’re visually reminded to have a biscuit too. Of course a biscuit here and there, within the context of a healthy lifestyle isn’t anything to worry about, if you wish to reduce snacking, simple organisational things like this can make all the difference.
8. Add some “barriers” to snacking
Place the snack foods right at the top and back of your cupboards, so that it takes that bit of extra effort to reach them. Alternatively, you can ‘store’ decadent snacks (like crisps, chocolate, cakes etc.) at the shops, so you have to go to the effort of heading outside to buy them before eating. Avoid leaving snack foods in your car or by your desk, so you have to stand up and walk elsewhere or wait until you get home to eat them. Have a think about little ways you can make it that bit more effortful to snack. And likewise, are there any ways to make healthy cooking from scratch that bit easier and simpler?
9. Think about why, as well as what
Very often, snacking can be more emotionally driven than it is hunger driven. If you find yourself snacking at around the same time each day, or consistently around the same situation, perhaps one of the most important steps is to gently enquire as to what is really going on for you at that moment. Is it that you are actually feeling stressed? Anxious? Lonely? Bored? Or is there genuine hunger? Meet whatever comes up for you with compassion and kindness, but know that bringing gentle awareness to these situations can be the key that unlocks lifelong change. If you need some ideas that go beyond food for ways to reward and comfort yourself, take a look at my list of non-food treats.
10. Children (and some others) may need to snack
I know that this article, and this website, is aimed at adults, but many of us are also responsible for feeding children and teenagers. I therefore wanted to reiterate that for these groups, and for various other people (such as those mentioned in the introduction), snacking can be really important. The key is to try to make those snacks as healthy and balanced as reasonably possible.
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Please note that the information on this website is provided for general information only, it should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional providing personalised nutrition or lifestyle advice. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider.
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