As a health and nutrition consultant, two big questions I'm always asked are: When should I snack? and What should I snack on? It often ends up being more like erratic eating, so here are some tips to help you snack smartly:
1. Snack when your hunger is real.
When there is too much time between meals, you might need a bite to hold you over. The stomach takes three to four hours to empty, so if your next meal is five hours away, eat a little. If you under-eat or wait too long, watch out for over-snacking. You don’t want a snack to turn into brunch or dinner.
2. Snack when your blood sugar is low.
How can you tell? If your meals are high in starch or sugar, you might get low blood sugar shortly after eating, a swing that can make you feel falsely hungry. If you have the condition hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), you may feel nauseous without much warning. A small bite will raise your blood sugar level. Choose a food-based snack, like an apple or a carrot. Something sugary will only keep the imbalance going.
3. Snack when you're running out of fuel.
This is different from low blood sugar. You can feel super tired when your meal did not provide enough calories. Calories are a measure of the energy available for you to use, so under-eating can leave you flat, causing you to run on adrenaline. Many go for coffee to push through. Not recommended!
4. Avoid daylong snacking.
Grazing is not the same as snacking all day. Grazing means splitting your good-food meals into smaller servings. Daylong snacking is having several snacks in addition to regular sized meals. Neither approach is ideal, since our digestive system and blood sugar balance thrive when we fast between meals. It's best to give your stomach time to empty before eating, so a snack is just to hold you over!
5. Don’t snack when you're bored, sad, mad, or scared.
Think of emotional snacking as the grown-up version of a pacifier. Eating calms us down, helps distract us, or even numbs us from experiencing our emotions. But it's not a solution. Use your self-compassion to avoid snacking in those situations. Acknowledge how you feel; it will help you use love-power instead of willpower. I call it “Positive Restraint.”
6. Snack mindfully.
Our habits can get in the way when we want to make healthy changes. They're difficult to change because it is their nature to be automatic. Bring mindfulness to your habits by starting to notice your triggers. At 4pm., do you go to the office kitchen for a treat? The time has become a trigger and you react by seeking a snack without considering if you need it or not. Start changing the habit by drinking a glass of water or cup of tea instead.
7. My mantra is: food first!
For a healthy snack, think food first: Cutting up an apple and serving it in a bowl makes it feel more like a treat and encourages you to pause and to eat mindfully. You can use almond butter, which adds protein and good fats, on apple slices to create a more substantial snack. Other real-food options are soup, sweet potato, avocado, carrot, hummus, or for a sweetness snack; try these oatballs. Smoothies can also work as long as they are not all fruit. Try a green (or any vegetable-based) smoothie like this one with berry and beet.
8. Keep it real, even when you're on the go.
Eating whole fruit and nuts is better than bars made from fruit and nuts, though not as convenient. Many snack bars are glorified candy bars. Read the first three to five ingredients on the label; they represent the bulk of what you're eating. If the list starts with sugar, skip it. My favorite trail mix is dry-roasted root vegetables (carrots and sweet potato) with nuts. I love pistachios because they are so high in antioxidants.
9. Plan ahead. Don’t expect to find nutritious food and snacks on the road.
Bring healthy bites with you. Little containers and pouches will help secure them in your bag. If you were taking care of a baby, you'd bring good food, so “baby yourself” and make sure you will have a proper snack or mini-meal when you need it.
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