Fitness Facts: Healthy snacks
By Liz Cook
Registered Dietitian, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
We all know that mid-afternoon feeling when lunch has passed, dinner isn’t for a few hours, but we NEED something to eat. It’s absolutely normal to start to feel hungry a few hours after a meal, and having a healthy, well-balanced snack is your best bet when that 3 p.m. feeling hits.
A quick snack between meals helps hold us over so we aren’t totally starving, which can lead to making poor choices and/or overeating at our next meal. We talked a little bit about the importance of having a daily eating structure, which should include snacks, in last week’s article as well.
Just for a little context, let’s talk about why snacks are important. After a meal or snack, our blood sugar naturally rises as the food we consumed is digested. After a few hours, most of the food has been digested and absorbed, and our blood sugar starts to fall.
When our blood sugar falls too low, we start to get the “hangry” feeling, where we tend to be more irritable and lose focus more quickly. Our goal throughout the day should be to maintain our blood sugar in the range where we feel good – not too high, not too low.
We don’t all need to be testing our blood sugar regularly. Instead, we simply can maintain a regular eating schedule, go by how we feel, honor our hunger and stop eating when we’re full.
If we practice these steps, our blood sugar will be a nice, smooth wave up and down over the course of the day. On the other hand, if we pick poor options, skip meals sometimes, and overeat at other times, our blood sugar chart would look more like jagged peaks and valleys, which isn’t ideal.
First, I want to talk about when to eat a snack. Last week we touched on the fact that, on average, we should try to eat very 3-4 hours.
Another tool I like to use to gauge when it’s time to eat is a 1-10 scale for hunger. On this scale, a 1 is totally starving, willing to eat whatever is in front of you because you’re just that hungry. A 10 is completely stuffed – think post-Thanksgiving dinner.
We want to avoid the ends of that scale and try to remain somewhere in the middle most of the time. When you’re starting to feel as if it’s time for a snack, rate your hunger 1-10. If you’re low on that scale, it’s probably time for a snack. If you’re in the middle, you may want to wait a bit until you feel truly hungry.
On the flip side, when you’re eating, you want to avoid getting to that 9 or 10. Use your snack to get you to a place where you feel satisfied, maybe a 7 or an 8, then stop.
Here’s what to look for when deciding what to eat: The first is protein. Protein is digested more slowly than other nutrients, so it will keep you feeling full for a longer period. The same is true for fiber, so it’s important to look for some fiber in your snacks. Healthy fats also slow digestion and can be good to include as well.
Most of us gravitate to carbs in snacky foods – chips, pretzels, crackers, etc. – and while many of us love them, eating these foods alone is going to leave us feeling hungry sooner than if we include some protein and/or fat with those carbs.
The final thing to look out for is sugar. Sugar provides a lot of calories for little nutritional benefit, so looking for snacks with little to no added sugar is beneficial for keeping energy intake in check while getting that satisfied feeling.
Now that we have some context, let’s get a little more specific on what to include in your daily snacks.
Fruit and veggies are always high on my list of go-to snack options. Anything and everything goes in these categories.
For maximum satisfaction, try pairing a fruit or a veggie with a protein-based food. Some examples would be an apple or banana with nut butter, carrots and celery with hummus, or a handful of berries with a small handful of nuts.
Some options for protein-rich snacks include greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, hummus, cheese, nuts, seeds, nut butters or dried chickpeas or other beans. Nuts, seeds and avocados also contain healthy fats to round out a healthy snack.
If you are looking for something more carb-based, try pairing whole grain crackers or pretzels with one of the protein foods listed above. Air-popped popcorn is another great snack, and I recommend looking for a lightly salted option.
Some of my personal favorite snack combinations are an apple with sunflower seed butter, greek yogurt with berries and granola, or dried chickpeas with grapes. Feel free to mix and match to make as many different combos as you’d like!
Another thing to keep in mind when snacking is hydration. Keeping something to drink nearby will help you stay hydrated throughout the day.
Try to minimize the added sugars in your drinks, just as you would for snacks. My favorite things to sip on through the workday are water, seltzer, coffee, hot tea and kombucha. Find what you like best and keep it within reach all day!