It’s 10:30 a.m. and you’ve had a busy morning. You reach for a snack to help carry you to lunch. What do you reach for? A cookie? Another cup of coffee? Many of us have developed patterns of behavior that lead us to select certain foods. Or we’re in a work environment where a variety of choices, both healthy and less healthy, are available. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, many of my clients struggle with selecting “smart snacks.”. While they can be nutritious, many are packed with added sugars, preservatives and sodium. Let’s explore what makes a balanced snack, key areas to focus on and the importance of meal timing and environment.
Building better balance
Have you ever noticed your energy increase after you’ve had a cupcake or slice of toast? Carbohydrates, found in pasta, potatoes and yogurt, are our body’s primary fuel source. When we feel hungry or tired, we’re more likely to reach for a high-carb food to fuel our bodies. To help prevent the dip in energy we can experience post-carb intake, it’s important to pair that carbohydrate with some protein or fat. For example, enjoy a banana with a tablespoon of nut butter, several dates stuffed with a dairy-free cheese or hummus spread onto a small tortilla with sliced raw veggies.
What should you be including in your snacks?
- FILL UP ON FIBER
Fiber helps keep you fuller for longer by slowing the rate at which the stomach empties. Women, aim for 25 g/day. Men, aim for 38g/day. Berries, beans, nuts, seeds and oatmeal are all great sources. Opt for fruits and vegetables with a skin (apple, berries) vs. a peel (banana, orange) for an extra fiber boost.
- PACK IN PROTEIN
Protein takes more energy for us to breakdown than refined carbohydrates, helping us to keep us full and our hunger at bay. Depending on activity level and body composition, we need ~0.8 grams/kg of protein/day, meaning a 150 lb person needs ~54 grams per day. Add plant-based proteins such as edamame, hemp seeds and tofu to boost your intake of anti-inflammatory foods.
- SET DOWN THE SALT
While giving food flavor and extending the shelf life of snacks, sodium can stimulate our appetite. Top sources include bread, packaged foods, cured meats, cheeses and canned goods. The current recommendation is 2,300 mg/day of sodium, equivalent to 1 tsp. of salt.* Look for “low sodium” or “no sodium added” products, dilute salty spreads by blending in tofu or plain dairy-free yogurt and include potassium-rich foods such as bananas and lentils to help offset sodium in the body.
How do meal timing and environment play a role?
AVOID SKIPPING SNACKS
When we go for a period of time without eating, ghrelin, our hunger-stimulating hormone, starts to kick in. Secreted mainly from the stomach lining, it signals our brain that it's time to eat. Ghrelin works on a cycle; levels build before we eat and drop after a meal. This happens naturally about every four hours. So eating every 3 - 4 hours will help to stabilize our hunger levels.
MODIFY YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Out of sight, out of mind. Keep tempting treats out of the house; make it an extra effort to obtain these treats by walking or driving to the store. Stash healthier options, like fresh fruit, on the countertop in attractive containers and keep less healthy items, like leftover pizza, wrapped in foil toward the back of the fridge.
While it’s important to be mindful about your snack habits and food choices, it’s also important to give yourself a break. Restricting food choices and telling yourself “I can’t have this” day in, day out, is exhausting. As a result of this mental exhaustion, we’re likely to overindulge when our stress levels are maxed out. Plan ahead and enjoy a treat on a regular basis!