Worried about your midday munching? Don’t pitch the hummus and pita or sacrifice the guac just yet.
“When we think about a day-to-day eating pattern, there’s definitely space to have both snacks and three main meals,” says Yolian Calvo Diaz, a registered dietitian who sees patients at UW Medicine Primary Care clinics.
Whether it’s a post workout bite or a 3 p.m. pick-me-up, paying attention to how you snack allows you to eat tasty food and get the energy you need to make it through your day.
The best time to snack is based on your hunger cues
There isn’t a specific time of day when it’s best to eat a snack, Calvo Diaz says. While various diets and fads may recommend rigid eating schedules, there are no “good” or “bad” times to snack. Instead, you want to check in with your body and eat when you’re feeling hungry.
“I encourage people to lead with hunger cues. If you feel hungry between meals, you can incorporate in a snack to manage your hunger throughout the day,” she says.
That said, if you’re planning on intense physical activity, like high intensity interval training or an hour-long cardio session, snacking before and after can help power your workout and aid in recovery. Just be sure to avoid eating 30 minutes to an hour before exercising, as this can cause discomfort in your gut as you digest.
Watch for when you’re snacking as a coping method
Getting in touch with your hunger cues also means listening to your body when it’s signaling that you aren’t hungry. The more you check in with your body, the easier it is to notice if you are craving a snack because of something other than hunger, like feeling bored or upset.
“Sometimes our learned eating habits are things we have practiced for many years,” says Nikki Miller, a dietitian who sees patients at UW Medicine Primary Care clinics. “Try to pay attention if every time you are extra sad or super happy you go for chocolate or a specific food.”
Lots of people graze when they’re bored, upset or simply because there’s food sitting out (how are all the chips gone?). While food can provide a quick distraction, it doesn’t help deal with the underlying emotion in the long term.
If you notice you’re snacking in response to different emotions, it can help to name what you’re feeling and then consider activities that directly address what you need. For example, if you’re sad, it might be most helpful to call a friend for support, or if you’re bored at work, it might help to talk with your boss about new projects that will excite you about your daily tasks.
Aim for protein, heart healthy fats and carbohydrates that are high in fiber
“When we think about energy content in snacks, it’s going to be very individualized to each person’s needs,” Calvo Diaz says.
Still, she recommends a snack that combines protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates that are high in fiber so you feel satisfied, energized and fuller for longer. This breaks down to meats, cheeses and plant-based options like hummus for protein; nuts and seeds, avocado and unsaturated oils like olive and sesame for fats; and fruits and veggies, whole grain cereals and oats, and beans and peas for carbs that are high in fiber.
Need some snack inspo? Try these:
- Carrots, celery sticks or peppers with a protein like deli meat or hummus
- Whole grain crackers, cereal or oatmeal with berries
- Fruit with a dairy product like cheese or Greek yogurt (top it with cinnamon, shredded coconut or granola for added flavor)
- Peanut butter with apple slices or banana
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Dark chocolate covered almonds
Allow for flexibility and your favorite foods
It’s great to strive for snacks that give you the most nutritional value, but both Calvo Diaz and Miller emphasize this doesn’t mean you have to avoid your favorite treats either.
“You should be able to eat all foods in moderation,” Miller says. “If you’re really craving chocolate chip cookies, think about what you can add to the snack to manage your hunger for longer. That way you’re not taking away the foods you enjoy.”
The idea is to add some fiber, fat or protein to the snacks you love but that have less nutritional value so that you feel full after eating a serving and remain satisfied.
Bulk up your snack by:
- Eating sweets with a handful of nuts
- Eating chips with salsa, guacamole or bean dip
- Eating toast with peanut butter or cheese
- Eating pita bread or pita chips with hummus and veggies
Focus on your food while you eat it
It’s easy to go from having a satisfying snack to unintentionally eating past fullness if you aren’t paying attention to your food while you eat — especially if you have a habit of doing so in certain settings (say, an evening Netflix binge). In fact, the food doesn’t even need to taste all that good.
In one study, researchers found people with an established habit of eating popcorn at a movie theatre will eat the same amount even if they aren’t hungry and the popcorn is stale. So, if you have a habit of eating in certain environments or situations, it’s easy to end up snacking even if you aren’t hungry and don’t like the food.
To avoid falling into this behavior trap, try to limit distractions while you eat.
“Any time there’s a distraction — eating at your desk or while doing a project — you aren’t engaging all of your senses, so it’s harder to tune into your body and sense when to stop eating,” Miller says.
While you eat, pay attention to how the food looks, smells and tastes and allow yourself to enjoy the different colors, textures and flavors. This will help you nourish your body and can increase your enjoyment of the snack, too.
“There’s always a little space to enjoy a treat or a snack,” Miller says. “Just be mindful of it.”