Is there such a thing as a Healthy Snack?
To snack or not to snack – that is the question. If you talk to health and nutrition experts, you will likely hear different answers. Some people believe that if you are eating three well-balanced meals you won’t need to eat in between meals, others think that having healthy snacks can prevent overeating when you sit down for your next meal and then there are some that swear by eating six small meals a day. So what should you do if your tummy starts grumbling between meals?
First a little biology
It takes 6-8 hours for food to pass through your stomach and small intestine where it is digested. When your meals contain the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) that your body requires, your body registers that you are satisfied and turns off your hunger signals. If your body does not get what it needs, it will continue to send a message that it needs food.
How quickly we feel hungry after we eat depends on a lot of individual factors, but an important one is what was on your plate. If you ate an unbalanced meal with processed and sugary foods, your blood sugar quickly rises and then crashes shortly after. This causes you to crave sugar and simple carbohydrates and give the effect of ‘eating the entire kitchen’. However, if you ate a meal with sufficient protein, fiber, healthy fats and nutrients, you feel fuller longer and may be able to hold off until your next meal.
The thing is when we eat before the digestion of our last meal is complete, our digestive organs do not have much time to rest. Some studies have shown that eating every 3 to 4 hours, actually slows down our body’s ability to burn fat, increases our insulin resistance and speeds up the aging process. Because of this, some medical and nutrition professionals believe that by giving your digestion a break is best for balancing blood sugar in the long-term and as such they believe it’s best for the body to not eat between meals.
In the short-term, however, eating between meals or eating smaller, more frequent meals helps to keep the blood sugar balanced, provided that you are eating whole foods. Having a stable blood sugar helps to improve your mood, productivity and focus. In this case, it may be better to have a snack than to be “hangry”.
Am I truly Hungry?
Our body is designed to send us this message to seek sustenance when we need it. However, there are many reasons why we may “feel” hungry, but it may not be true hunger:
- You may be dehydrated – sometimes the signal for thirst and hunger is mixed. Try drinking a glass of water and waiting 15 minutes to determine whether or not it is true hunger.
- If you are used to eating at certain times of the day, it may more out of habit than actual hunger. If this habit no longer serves you, try moving your body or taking deep breaths to create a new healthy habit.
- Stress can trigger the hormones in the body that cause hunger. If you are feeling stressed, explore healthy ways of managing stress for example exercise or meditation instead of turning to eating.
- If you are sad, bored or experiencing some other difficult emotion, we may seek out the pleasure from food, particularly comfort foods. Instead fill your spirit doing something you love like getting out in nature or connecting with a friend.
What Should I Snack On?
If you are truly hungry, then it is important to eat so your body gets the sustenance that it needs. Depending on when your next meal is scheduled, you can consider eating your meal earlier (instead of a snack) so that you can reset the body’s satiety signals.
If you decide you are going to snack, the question then is what should you have? If there were any macronutrient gaps in your meals so far, then you can use the snack to fill those gaps. For example if you had a pasta dish for lunch that did not have protein, then you can choose a snack of hummus with veggies or a chicken salad.
If you are eating a snack to fuel your upcoming workout, then you want some high-energy foods such as Greek yogurt or nut butter with fruit. And if you just need something to hold you over until dinner, then a handful of nuts or a fruit should do the trick.
Be mindful that depending on the foods you choose to snack on, you may feel hungrier later. The key is to stick with whole foods and limit the packaged snacks, which may satisfy your taste buds but may cause volatile swings in your blood sugar.
I don’t believe there is only one right answer that works for everyone. Ultimately you have to figure out what works best for your body, lifestyle and health goals and this will inevitably change over time. But whether it’s intermittent fasting, 6 small meals a day, food combining or anything in between, the key is to primarily choose real whole foods and if you choose to snack, snack healthy.