Forty years ago about 60% of the population consumed a snack between meals. Today, more than 95% of the population snacks, usually at least two to three times daily. As much as 30% of our daily calories are coming from snacks and many of our choices are nutritionally poor. How healthy is your snacking? Here are five things all snackers need to know:
1. Don’t Snack Because You’re Sad
Healthy snacking can keep your appetite in check and fill in nutritional shortfalls. Too often, however, we medicate our emotions with food. We snack because we’re bored, lonely, depressed, stressed, or anxious. We need to deal with emotions in healthier ways. We also snack frequently “just because it’s there”. Based on research from Cornell University, snacks that are in sight and in reach are consumed at twice the rate. When Google’s New York office replaced a glass jar of freebie M&M’s with dried fruit, their 2,000 employees collectively consumed 3.1 million fewer calories over a seven-week period. Lastly, a review of 53 studies by Deakin University found a particularly strong link between watching television and unhealthy snacking. Bottom line – many factors impact your snack habits that have nothing to do with hunger or giving your body the nourishment it needs. Make sure when you snack, it’s for the right reasons.
2. Your First Snack Choice Is Often Wrong
The California Institute of Technology has done some fascinating work on food choice. What they’ve found is this – your brain registers or measures the taste value of a food, before it registers the health value. Reaching for a snack too quickly (and often impulsively as most people do), means you may be choosing a snack that’s tasty, but not necessarily nutritious. If you give yourself time, however, to consciously think about the health value of a food (and this generally takes just a few seconds more!), you increase the likelihood of choosing a snack that’s both tasty and healthy. Pause, think about it… then choose!
3. Limit Food Addiction
Can food have addictive-like properties? The answer is yes, especially when it comes to more processed snack choices like potato chips, french fries, cookies, ice cream, and yes, even chocolate. These foods can activate the reward centers in your brain. Once you start eating them, it can be very difficult to stop. This doesn’t happen when you eat more natural, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables. Drinking your snacks is also not wise. Fruit drinks, energy drinks, soft drinks, specialty coffees and specialty teas, are often high in calories and low in nutrition. They also don’t fill you up like whole foods do. The best snacks are less processed, more nutritious, and not too high in calories, salt, sugar, or unhealthy fats. Foods that qualify include whole fruits and vegetables, unsalted nuts, 100% whole grains, and beans, like edamame or roasted chickpeas.
4. Healthy Snackers Have This In Common
Based on a recent snacking survey by Nielsen, about 60% of snack purchases are unplanned (and often unhealthy). Healthy snackers, on the other hand, leave nothing to chance. They’re exceptional planners! They keep their home and work environment fully stocked with easy to eat snacks like fruit, cut-up veggies, nuts, nut butters, low fat yogurt, and bean dips, like hummus. They pack snacks to take with them when heading out the door. Perhaps most important, they eliminate the competition. Research from the University of California clearly shows that both adults and children will not pick a healthy snack when a less healthy snack, like cookies or chips, is also vying for their attention. Keep your food environment healthy and clean. Make choosing the right snack the easy thing to do.
5. Snack Timing Matters
Based on research from the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, around-the-clock snacking is harmful to health. Mice fed an unhealthy diet (high sugar, high fat) and allowed to snack at all hours over nine months became obese and metabolically ill (type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, high blood cholesterol), compared to mice restricted to eating within a 9 to 12 hour period (caloric intake and type of foods eaten for both groups was the same). Mice that ate only within the 9 to 12 hour window remained sleeker and healthier, even when allowed to cheat occasionally on weekends. What’s more, mice switched out of the “eat-anytime schedule” lost weight and reversed metabolic illness. In addition, even mice that ate only healthy foods in a restricted time period, had more lean muscle mass than those who ate healthy food whenever they chose. As for research with humans, Health Care Food Research Laboratories in Tokyo measured the health impact of eating a snack in the morning (10 a.m.) compared to the evening (11 p.m.) over two weeks in eleven healthy women (average age 23). Compared with daytime snacking, nighttime snacking significantly decreased fat oxidation (less stored fat was broken down to produce energy) and increased total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Why is nighttime snacking or around-the-clock snacking so harmful to health? Researchers believe eating can influence your circadian rhythm (or biological rhythm) more than dark and light cycles (daytime and nighttime). Circadian rhythms affect the function of many genes in your body that involve metabolism. When you mess with your circadian rhythm, you mess with your metabolism. My recommendation – contain your eating (including snacking) to a 12 hour period. The clock starts with your first bite or drink in the morning. Allow yourself some leeway on weekends.
Snack because you’re hungry and want to nourish your body – not to medicate emotions or just because it’s there. Give your brain time to choose a healthy snack. Choose whole, more natural foods, not addictive foods. Plan ahead. Carry snacks with you. Keep your home and work environment well stocked with only healthy snack options. Limit snacking to a 12 hour window. Don’t snack late at night.
P.S. My next blog will show you exactly what a healthy snack looks like, including what’s a reasonable portion size. Most people are choosing snacks that are larger than required. Stay tuned and as always, thanks for reading (hey – if you like this blog post be sure to share it with friends)!