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To snack or not to snack (and on what), that is the question

apples with peanut butter

It’s 3 pm. My tummy rumbles rather audibly. But I had a big lunch. Is it time for a trip to the vending machine? Or should I stick it out til dinner (and risk getting “hangry” on the bus home?)

It’s important we start thinking about food – and snacks – as fuel, says Rebecca Mercer, a clinical dietitian at Sunnybrook. She answered my burning questions about those mid-afternoon munchies and more.

Sometimes I get mixed messages – should we be snacking or not snacking?

As an avid snacker myself, I believe snacking can absolutely be part of a healthy diet – but it comes down to the quality and quantity of the snacks! It’s important that the snacks are just snacks, and not the calorie equivalent of a meal. The way I like to approach snacking is really asking ourselves why are we motivated to munch … Bored? Hungry? Tired? Many different situations and emotions can trigger snacking so being mindful of what and why you are eating is a great place to start. There are different types of hunger and listening to your body can help you decide if you would benefit from a snack. This is called ‘mindful eating’. If everyone in your 11 am meeting can hear your stomach grumble, chances are you are physically hungry and could benefit from a healthy snack. If you find yourself reaching for the potato chips while you watch your favourite TV show shortly after dinner, perhaps the snack is not necessary.

Why should we see snacks as an opportunity to “fuel up”?

Nutritious snacks are a great way to fuel your body to avoid energy slumps that we often experience throughout the day. Having consistent energy levels can help prevent overeating at your next meal. Snacks are also a great way to reach our daily recommendations for different nutrients and should be viewed as an opportunity to fuel, rather than being a ‘treat’ or way to pass time. They are a great opportunity to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and other high nutrient foods into your daily diet. Next time you are reaching for a snack, ask yourself “What in this food will fuel my body and how will it make me feel after?”

What are 3 or 4 go to snacks that can give us a boost?

When I am reaching for a snack I like to look for two things: protein and fibre. Even better if you can pair them together! Protein helps us feel more satisfied after eating it, so it can prevent you from reaching for more food than you need. Fibre provides bulk to the food without adding calories, keeping us feeling fuller longer. Some snacks that provide this dynamic duo include:

  • Fruit with nut butter or nuts: i.e. apple and peanut butter, banana and ¼ cup of walnuts
  • Greek yogurt with berries: Greek yogurt is packed with protein
  • 2 tbsp of hummus and carrot/celery sticks
  • Hard-boiled eggs with a few whole grain crackers

Are there certain times when we should reach for a snack?

The first sign that you may benefit from reaching for a healthy snack is physical hunger between meals. If your stomach is growling, chances are you could benefit from a nourishing snack. If you find that you are physically hungry while at work or throughout your day, keep healthy, convenient snacks within reach to avoid purchasing or over-eating a less healthy snack.

If you are planning on hitting the gym or working out a few hours after a meal, you may benefit from having a small strategic snack to fuel your workout. Heading into a workout hungry can leave you feeling light-headed, dizzy, nauseous or sluggish – all things that will limit your physical performance. Reach for a snack that is around 100-200 calories and contains carbohydrates and protein. Some examples include rice cake with nut butter, a healthy granola bar, handful of dried fruit and nut trail mix. When purchasing granola bars, look for one with less than 8 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fibre.

Snacking before exercise can provide you with the energy needed to push through, but what you eat after you work out is also important for muscle recovery, and refueling your body. Ideally, a snack or meal should be consumed within 30 minutes of exercise to fully reap the benefits of your hard work. For post-workout snacks, protein and carbohydrates are key. For snacks, reach for things like 1-cup of chocolate milk, whole-wheat pita with hummus and vegetables, 2 eggs and 1 slice of whole wheat bread.

If you know you are going to have a late night at work or won’t have an opportunity to eat your meals at your regular time having a healthy snack on hand can help ward off hunger and reduce the likelihood of grabbing anything in sight (we have all been there!). Keeping fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and a healthy granola bar on hand can help hold you over.

Are there certain times when we should stop snacking / say no / do something else?

If you are bored, tired, anxious or stressed and not physically hungry, ask yourself whether or not you need a snack. Sometimes our bodies mistake thirst for hunger so making sure that you are adequately hydrated can help to avoid the confusion between hunger and thirst. Listening to your own hunger cues and being mindful of why you are snacking is important. If it is just boredom or stress that has you reaching for food, try a healthier coping strategy like going for a walk, enjoying a cup of tea, or going through mindfulness exercise.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Remember that food gives us energy, we need to use that energy throughout our day or else it can get stored as extra fat. All day grazing, large portions and high calorie, low nutrient value snacking is what we should try to avoid. Keep in mind that even healthy foods can pack a lot of calories. Foods like nuts, cheese and avocados are all nutritious, but do contain higher amounts of calories than foods like raw fruits and vegetables. Portioning out your snacks can help you snack smarter and avoid overindulging between meals. If you are a grazer, try to keep the healthiest, lower-calorie snacks the most visible and easiest to grab.

Happy snacking!

(Check out some good recipes from the Dietitians of Canada to get more veggies and fruit into your snacks and meals)


More Resources:

Dietitians of Canada

Eat Right Ontario 

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.