…that’s susceptible to ‘snack accidents’. Don’t worry, it’s what you reach for that matters, says Nicola Down.
What did you eat yesterday? Perhaps you grabbed a slice of toast as you ran out of the door but couldn’t resist a cereal bar at 11am. You had soup for lunch, but by mid-afternoon you needed something sweet, so hit the dark chocolate rice cakes. Then there were the carrot sticks and hummus you grazed on while making dinner; the big bag of popcorn inhaled during Strictly.
Forget the don’t-eat-between-meals message our parents drilled into us as children – in the space of a generation we’ve tripled our snack consumption. Many of us now have a dedicated cupboard of nibbles in our kitchen, plus titbits in our office drawer, car and handbag.
But with all the healthy choices available, from tubs of fresh fruit to egg and spinach pots, surely being a serial snacker needn’t be a bad thing? ‘Variety is key to a balanced diet and if you always eat the same foods at mealtimes, snacking can help you get your five-a-day or a wider variety of nutrients, such as fibre,’ says dietician Priya Tew. And with the NHS reporting that only 29 per cent of adults and 18 per cent of children are hitting their five-a day targets, that mid-morning mango pot from Pret is a win.
For people looking to lose weight, snacking is often considered the enemy, but ‘sometimes the biggest cause of overeating is undereating’, says Priya. ‘Going for very long stretches without eating or not getting enough calories can cause blood-sugar levels to drop, setting off cravings which cause you to overindulge later.’ Some of us may work better with a little-but-often method. A slow-and-steady trickle of foods throughout the day as opposed to three big blasts from meals can be kinder to the digestive system, reducing bloating and energy slumps.
Although snack options are getting healthier, many of us are still reaching for crisps, biscuits and chocolate, which have little nutritional value and are easy to overeat. As the nation’s snack intake has boomed, so has our weight, with the NHS reporting that 29 per cent of us are obese. Little wonder that a ‘snack tax’ of 20 per cent on biscuits, cakes and sweets has been proposed, with campaigners saying it could lead to an average weight loss of around 3lb in a year. ‘If some people did nothing other than stop grazing between meals – ie, eating when you’re not hungry – they’d lose weight,’ says Priya.
Even ‘healthier’ snacks can be surprisingly calorific. Some energy balls can be almost half sugar thanks to the dried fruit they contain. And while lentil puffs may be a little better than crisps, they can still rack up our sugar, fat and salt intake, especially as their ‘health halo’ feels like a green light to indulge. ‘Many snacks come with wellness buzzwords, suggesting they’re “gut-friendly” or “refined-sugar free”, but we need to view these claims with a critical eye and check the label,’ says Rosie Saunt, a registered dietician and co-author of Is Butter A Carb?
There’s also a ‘supersizing’ problem. ‘Lots of the snacks I see on Instagram are huge,’ says leading nutritionist Ian Marber. ‘If we want a snack to tide us over until our next meal, we should be talking about an apple and a few brazil nuts,’ he says. ‘There’s also an issue with our language. We talk about needing snacks to “keep us going”, but we’re not cars – we won’t come to a halt if we don’t eat between meals. People have begun to fear a rumbling of the stomach between meals, which is a normal body function. As a result, snacking to avoid slight hunger pangs has become a habit.’
What’s more, the availability of tempting treats means it’s easy to get derailed. Around 58 per cent of snacking sessions are unplanned ‘snaccidents’. ‘The more chances we’re given to eat, the more we’ll eat,’ says Priya. ‘If you give yourself six opportunities to eat, that’s potentially six opportunities to overeat rather than three if you stick to regular mealtimes.’
Another pitfall of frequent eating is that it can cause fluctuating blood-sugar levels. If you don’t let your body run down its energy stores, it releases insulin, which promotes fat storage.
The bottom line? ‘There’s no one-size-fits-all,’ says Rosie. ‘What’s important is that you learn to eat in line with your hunger and fullness signals, which might mean that you snack or stick to three meals.’ Priya agrees: ‘It’s important to listen to your body’s cues.’ Food for thought indeed.
Feeling peckish? Try these smart snack swaps
SWAP Belvita Breakfast Strawberry & Yogurt Duo Crunch FOR Pret Egg and Spinach pot
Two cereal biscuits contain 224 calories and 12.6g of sugar: reserve for treats. An egg and spinach pot contains about 100 calories and lots of nutrients plus filling protein.
Post-workout protein hit
SWAP Kind Protein Crunchy Peanut Butter Bar FOR Itsu Edamame
The pot of edamame contains nearly identical amounts of plant protein and fibre to the peanut butter bar, but with 10g less fat and almost 100 fewer calories.
On-the-go pick me up
SWAP Deliciously Ella Hazelnut & Raisin Energy Ball FOR Pret Naked Nuts
The ball is made from a few natural ingredients, but as it’s 45 per cent dates, a 40g ball has 18g of sugar (over four teaspoons). Watching your sugar? The nuts contain just 1.7g for the same weight.
SWAP M&S Apple with Peanut Butter Dip FOR Fage Total 2% Fat Greek Yogurt
The apple pot contains 9.6g of protein, but also 330 calories and 25g fat. A 170g pot of yogurt contains almost double the protein, 119 calories and 3.4g of fat. Add fresh berries for the win.