Thursday, 29 May 2014

To snack or not to snack - that is the question!

There seems to lots of conflicting evidence out there on the internet about whether we should snacking between meals or not snacking. Are six small meals better than three big ones?  Will it helps me lose weight or not?  Well I guess the answer is "it depends". Just like there is no one simple diet rule that suits everyone, there is no one simple answer about snacks that suits everyone. Lets explore it in a bit more detail.

What are the benefits of having snacks?

  • Research has shown that people who eat small healthy meals regularly have less spikes of blood sugar and therefore less corresponding insulin rise, which leads to less insulin resistance and better control of (or prevention of) diabetes. This is more noticeable if the snacks are a combination of low GI carbohydrate and protein.
  • People who have healthy snacks regularly have improved blood cholesterol and decreased risk of heart disease as the smaller meals do not stimulate liver production of cholesterol to such an extent as larger meals.
  • People who eat healthy snacks when they feel hungry, will overall eat almost 30% less at their next main meal. Over time, regularly eating smaller meals trains us to want and be satisfied with smaller meals.
But what are the downsides of eating snacks?
  • Very few processed and commercially available snacks are healthy. There are a plethora of snack foods on the market that are high calorie junk foods pretending to be healthy. The snack food industry is worth over $60 billion a year. Snacks are an opportunity for people to add unnecessary processed food to their diet without realising it.
  • The evidence of snacks preventing overeating at the next meal only applies if a person is truly hungry when they have the snack. If they are snacking "because  its afternoon tea time" or because they are bored, they will not eat less at the next meal and are simply adding extra calories. 
  • If people are adding snacks that are not hungry for and do not need, they can feel lethargic and sluggish and be less likely to exercise.
  • The metabolic advantage of eating snacks (lower cholesterol and better blood glucose levels) only applies if the person is not gaining weight from their snacking. Obviously if the snacking makes you fatter, then those benefits are no longer clear.
The bottom line...
Firstly, you should avoid overeating at your main meal times - eating until you are uncomfortably full not only spikes blood sugar but will over time cause you to habitually eat bigger meals and obviously more calories. You should avoid skipping meals - eating large infrequent meals dramatically increases the risk of overweight and obesity and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The cycle of "starving and stuffing" is detrimental to health as it increases the craving for high calorie foods at your next meal and makes good choices more difficult. You should be focusing your efforts on eating three balanced meals a day, and making those meals as nutritious as possible with healthy unprocessed food, lean protein, good fats and lots of low calorie high fibre vegetables to give you energy,  slow digestion and fill you up. With this as your basis you probably won't need snacks on a regular basis... but some days you will feel like it, and some people burn faster than others so you might just need a snack!

Am I really hungry?
But if it is a few hours until your next meal and you are feeling hungry, what should you do? Well the obvious thing is to go grab a healthy snack. But first you need to ask yourself some of the principles of mindful eating:
  • Am I just thirsty? I usually grab a glass of water or make a cup of tea and see if that makes the feeling go away
  • Am I just bored?  going for a walk, or simply getting up to make that cup of tea usually solves that
Tips for healthy snacking
If I'm still hungry after my cup of green tea, then I know I'm genuinely hungry and I should definitely have a snack to keep my blood sugar stable and avoid overeating at the next meal. Here's some points to remember:
  • Treat your snack as you would a meal - plan it, put it on a plate, remember your portion sizes, balance is key
  • Balance low GI carbohydrates and fibre with good fats and proteins - eg some fruit with cheese, vegetables with hummus, fruit with unsalted nuts or nut butters. Have ingredients handy so you avoid grabbing a less healthy option. if you are away from home its a good idea to have these on hand just in case - I try to never leave the house without an apple, some almonds and a bottle of water in my purse- my healthy food emergency kit! 
  • Avoid junk food - unless its a special treat, there is no point in eating high calorie low nutrient foods like chips, sweets, biscuits, cake, or "snack bars" - they won't fill you up and you'll be just as hungry when your next meal is due but with a whole lot more calories on board. These are treat foods, have them when you wish to have a special treat and enjoy every mouthful, but they should not be in your everyday diet.
  • Don't fall victim to the "open bag syndrome" - whether you're eating a healthy snack like nuts or having a treat like chips, portion sizes are important. Whatever you are eating, put it on a plate and get out of the kitchen - picking at an open pack is an easy way to lose track of just how much you have eaten.
  • If you have snack foods that you can't resist and are your personal dietary "kryptonite" (shortbread anyone?) then it may be easier for you not to keep them in the house at all! If your choices are all healthy unprocessed foods, then of course you will make healthy choices!
  • Add lots of vegetables to every meal and you will decrease your hunger in between meals.
So I hope that's helpful. You can be a "snacker" or a "non-snacker" and still be healthy and lose weight if you need to, providing you consider these principles. I snack most days, with lots of green tea, fruit vegetables, nuts and occasionally cheese between meals, and it certainly hasn't hampered my weight loss as I take it all into account. 

In summary? 
Eat when you're hungry, don't skip meals, and stop before you're too full. 
Eat healthy foods, mostly plants. 
And just eat real food. 

Lyndal @ Lean Green and Healthy

Any more tips for healthy snacking?  Tell me in the comments below.