Why snacking between meals is good for you

When we snack we often feel guilty, especially if we are on a calorie deficit to lose weight. However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with snacking, so long as you’re making the right choices.

As with so much of our diet, snacking comes down to blood sugar levels and managing them correctly. Every time we eat, blood sugar levels will rise, peak, then start to drop again. Low blood-sugar levels are one of several factors that trigger feelings of hunger, so keeping blood sugar levels maintained throughout the day can help to keep hunger at bay.

Don’t starve the brain

Culturally, we are used to having three meals a day, with five or more hours between meals. If you are working late, or eating after an evening class, the gap between lunch and dinner may be seven or eight hours. This can lead to our blood sugar levels dropping very low, especially if we’ve added in exercise. As the brain literally runs on sugar, the danger is that when you do eat, your brain is crying out for sugar, so you either eat lots of refined carbs, actual sugar (such as sweets), or you over-eat.

If we eat lots of sweet foods or refined carbs, these spike the blood sugar up, but will lead to it dropping again rapidly as insulin is released to remove it, leaving us feeling hungry again. The trick is to not allow our blood sugar to drop this low in the first place.

In order to keep our blood sugar at a reasonably steady level throughout the day, we need to do several things: eat more foods which release sugar into the blood stream slowly and eat more often. Snacking has an important role to play here, providing you choose the right snacks, of course!

Avoid the sugar spikes

Having worked in many offices, where vending machines full of fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate bars were always present, along with the propensity for colleagues to bring in doughnuts, biscuits and cakes, I know how hard it can be to make healthy choices sometimes. However, all of these items will simply send your blood sugar sky-high. What we need instead are snacks that will fill us up and release sugar slowly.

There are three things that help you to feel full; fibre, protein and fat. Fat is very calorie dense though, so needs to be consumed in smaller quantities. Snacks with lots of protein, such as nuts, jerky, hummus, etc. will help keep hunger at bay. While fruit is often thought to be an ideal snack, not all fruit is equal, due to the levels of fibre and how much sugar it contains. Bananas are high in fibre and release the sugars reasonably slowly, plus have lots of minerals such as potassium, so are great as an after-exercise fuel, as well as a general snack, but you should only really have one a day as they have a medium Glycaemic Index (GI).

Fruit such as pineapple, dates and watermelon have a very high Glycaemic Index, so should be avoided, along with most dried fruit. The exception here is dried apricots, which are low GI. However, citrus fruit, such as oranges, satsumas, clementine, etc. are low GI, as are berries, pears, apples, plums and grapes, providing you eat them with the skin. See this post for more information on Glycaemic Index.

Slow-release carbs

Oats are a great snack food, because they contain lots of fibre and protein, releasing sugar slowly. They also lower your cholesterol levels, so help to keep the heart healthy. Try swapping bread for oatcakes, served with low-fat cheese, cottage cheese or low-fat cream cheese, peanut butter, reduced-fat hummus, etc. However, watch out for oat snack bars and flapjacks, etc. as they usually have a large amount of added sugar and fat. If you want to stick with bread, then choose wholemeal over white. Wholemeal toast with nut butter has both protein and fibre and will keep you feeling much fuller over white bread and jam or a doughnut!

Vegetables contain lots of fibre, so carrot, cucumber or celery sticks with low-fat hummus, cottage cheese, etc. are healthy and filling. Cheese and yogurt are high in protein, but can contain lots of saturated fat. Beware of low-fat yogurts, as they often have a large amount of added sugar (check the ingredients), so choose natural or Greek-style instead. Nut butters have plenty of protein, but also contain quite a bit of fat, so be careful with the portion size!

Eggs are high in protein, so hard boiled eggs are a great filling snack, along with lean meat, such as chicken breast. Avoid processed & cured meats and if you eat tuna, limit yourself to one serving a week.

Here are a list of some snack ideas to keep your hunger at bay and blood sugar levels on an even keel:

  • Oatcakes with low-fat cheese (cottage, cream, etc), or nut butter, or hummus
  • Wholemeal bread/toast with low-fat cheese, or nut butter, or hummus
  • Carrot/cucumber/celery sticks with hummus, or cottage cheese, or nut butter
  • Boiled eggs
  • Sliced chicken breast
  • Meat or vegan jerky
  • Yogurt, & berries, without added sugar or honey
  • Dried apricots (not too many though!)
  • Un-roasted, un-salted nuts. Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium. Or you can dry roast/toast nuts without adding oil or salt, at home
  • Apples, pears, plums & citrus fruit, with the skin on!
  • Berry fruit
  • Bananas – But only one a day, as they medium GI

Snacks you should try to avoid:

  • Sweets
  • Chocolate
  • Dried fruit (apart from dried apricots)
  • Watermelon, lychees, pineapple, fruit juice
  • White bread & crackers
  • Cakes, biscuits, “breakfast bars”, cereal bars, flapjacks, etc.
  • Yogurts, rice-pots, etc. with fruit puree or sugar added
  • Commercially roasted nuts (they are very high in fat and salt)
  • Crisps

I find it helps to plan my snacks into my day. Ideally your snacks should be around a quarter of your daily calorie allowance, but this is entirely up to you. If you only have a small breakfast, you may want to have more calories for a mid-morning snack. The important thing to recognise is that snacking is not bad – it helps to maintain our blood sugar levels and stops us feeling hungry and subsequently over-eating, so long as we eat the right things, or course!

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