How to snack properly: Experts give their good guide to snacking
We all know that a handful of nuts is a better choice than a bar of chocolate when we want an energy boost - but can you tell when you're really hungry from when you're eating out of habit or boredom? Claire O'Mahony Asks the experts for their snacking advice
We live in an era when, arguably, there's never been a wider choice of food-to-go. Whether it's a carton of fresh pomegranate seeds or a bag of bbq-flavoured coated peanuts, snacks croon their siren call from every convenience store, supermarket and deli. A 2016 Mintel report found that snacking in Ireland is almost universal, with 96pc of Irish consumers snacking at least once a day. The same report also noted that our snack preference is for fresh fruit and vegetables, indicating that the Department of Health's five-to-seven-portions-a-day message is being clearly heard and understood.
But while choosing an apple over a family-sized bar of chocolate is fairly obvious to anyone trying to adhere to the tenets of healthy eating, the 'how to of snacking' can be more complicated. There are times when the need for sugar becomes overwhelming and nothing but refined carbohydrates will get you through the afternoon, and others when, overwhelmed by options, we're not sure if we're making the right choice.
When to snack
According to dietitian Sarah Keogh of nutrition consultancy Eatwell, snacking should, quite simply, be based on whether or not you're hungry.
"As a general rule what I'd always say to people is you snack if you're hungry, and if you're not hungry, your body is telling you don't eat. I find a lot of people snack because it's 10 o'clock or snack because it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon or they snack because they're bored or they snack because they're stressed. Irish people, in particular, will eat food because it's there. If it's somebody's birthday in the office and somebody brings in cake, a lot of people will eat it, not because they were hungry and they might not have thought about it if they hadn't seen it," she says. "I sometimes think that we've so much food available that we're seeing it more often and if we weren't seeing it so much, we might not think about snacking."
Sarah believes that there's a mentality where if there's an opportunity to eat, you don't miss it. "A big expression that you hear a lot in Ireland is, 'You better eat that now, you might be hungry later'. But if you get hungry for half an hour this evening, you'll probably be OK. We tend to eat in advance and people will have a snack mid-morning, even if they're not hungry, in case they get hungry before lunchtime. I'm not saying we have to go around starving but being a little bit hungry coming up to your lunch is actually what you should be. You shouldn't look at it as a major catastrophe and the end of the world - we need to stop panic eating."
She advises that small children might need an extra one to two snacks a day, as well as anyone who is exercising at very high level. "I know it sounds counterintuitive but for weight loss you shouldn't let yourself get really hungry and having the odd snack coming in can, for some people, be a good way to control what they eat at meal times."
Choosing your snacks wisely
The dietitian believes that if you are going to snack, to use it as an opportunity to nourish your body as opposed to just filling the void. "If you go for the biscuits, nutrition-wise they aren't going to give you a whole lot. Whereas for the same calories, if you eat a yoghurt you're getting calcium, iodine and B12 as well as your protein. There are days when we all see a packet of chocolate digestives and say, 'Yeah, I'm going to have some' and that's fine. But if you're someone who regularly snacks, it's no harm to ask yourself what are you giving to your body. If someone is a chocolate lover, a very nice combination is the very dark chocolate, which we know is good for us, with some nuts."
Battling the 3pm slump
Many of us might be labouring under the illusion that the endemic afternoon energy plummet is related to our lunchtime choices, perhaps due to an excess of carbs. However, Sarah Keogh says this is not the case. "This is one of the biggest myths I see out there, but it's nothing to do with lunch," she says. "If you eat an enormous meal your body will be a little sleepier as it deals with it, but if you're eating your normal lunch, whether you're low carb or high carb, you're still going to get that slump.
"We are designed to go to sleep in between two and four - it's called the Circadian rhythm, and it's a hormonal peak in the afternoon that's telling us to go to sleep. If you're sleepy and tired, sugar and caffeine will get you through that. But the actual solution is to get your proper sleep and if you get eight hours at night and get some of it before midnight, it lessens the impact that the afternoon slump will have on you."
Fighting an after-dinner sugar craving
Often, even after a large dinner, thoughts turn to a sweet treat. Sarah's advice is to wait 15 minutes before breaking out the ice-cream. "You'll find that most of the time, after 15 minutes the desire of it is gone. That's a key thing to do in restaurants as well. When the meal is finished and they immediately hand you the dessert menu, don't even open it. Wait 10 or 15 minutes and once the signals have really arrived at your brain about what you've eaten, you'll realise you're full," she says.
"If after 15 minutes, you're still looking for something, dark chocolate is a nice thing to go for or one or two biscuits. The trick with the biscuits is that you put the two biscuits onto a plate and you take them to where you're going to eat them. You don't put the packet beside you." But she cautions that eating late at night generally has little to do with hunger. "You're eating because you're bored or usually because your body wants to go to sleep."
Snacking pre- and post-workout
"Experts differ, but for 30 minutes to two hours after a workout, having a snack does seem to improve the amount of muscle that you build and to refuel muscles for the next session," says Sarah. "But that can be coming home and having your dinner or it can be having a chicken sandwich on the way out the door."
Trainer and fitness expert Alan Williams suggests sticking to natural, whole snacks where possible. "I train more than most people and I don't eat shop-bought protein bars," he says. "While they're pretty high in protein, quite a few are high in sugar and they're very heavily processed - if you actually look at the back of the products and look what's gone into them, there's a list of ingredients as long as your arm and you probably don't know what half of them are."
Instead, he recommends snacks like nuts, and Greek or natural yoghurt with some chia seeds and berries stirred in. "If you've got a sweet tooth, rather than going for biscuits and chocolate, look at higher sugar fruits like a handful of grapes, but keep it in moderation and it will go a long way towards helping with cravings. I also say to people if they are having sugar cravings that half a banana is a good option as well."
Alan suggests having slow-release foods, such as porridge, or chicken with vegetables and rice two to three hours before a training session and then a simple carbohydrate like a banana or slices of apple dipped in nut butter 30 minutes before you train. Then, after a session, what you eat will depend on the time of day.
"It's something people overlook because they feel it's counterproductive to eat after you train but you've got to replenish lost stores and maintain muscle mass as well," says Alan. "A lot of people might be training after work so probably don't want to come home late at night and have a huge meal because it might affect your sleep. Try something like scrambled eggs with a slice of wholegrain bread so you're getting protein and a little bit of carbs or you could have one to two hard-boiled eggs, again with a slice of wholegrain bread. Two wholewheat crackers with a scraping of peanut butter and watermelon to replace lost electrolyte stores are good options.
"If you're training earlier in the day, you might want something heavier so something like sweet potato with chicken or turkey, or tuna with a slice of wholegrain bread."
Getting off the
Not all women have intense food cravings in the run-up to their period but an unstoppable urge to nibble can affect some.
According to Sarah Keogh, it's because of changes in insulin levels and your metabolism speeding up, too. "This is why you will look for more food and particularly sugary things the day or so before a period," she says. "Because your metabolism speeds up it doesn't have an impact on your weight. If it's one day I wouldn't worry about it, if it ends up being a week, you might want to put the brakes on.
"What does help are slow-release foods, like porridge, beans and lentils that tend to keep blood sugar levels a little more steady and that can help, but you are going to have a faster metabolism on those days so you are going to be hungrier."
and treats' debate
Indulgent grannies and granddads can sometimes upset parents by giving children snacks that are at odds with the healthy eating patterns they are trying to instil at home. Sarah Keogh says that the issues are frequency and portion sizes. "I would ask how often is that happening. Is it once a week or once a month, in which case, I wouldn't worry about it," she says. "But I would just talk about amounts - it's one treat not five. Years ago you might bring a child one bar of chocolate, these days people turn up with a bag of stuff.
"A treat is not problem for a child and it's the wrong idea if you bring them up and give them nothing because then it becomes a much bigger deal for them later on, when they tend to over-eat. I would look at what the child eats all week and who else is giving them treats, and if it's just the grandparents on Friday, it's fine."