The role of snacks in a healthy diet is hotly debated. Some people argue that between-meal snacks are essential to managing blood sugar levels and “keeping the metabolism going.”
Others note that empty-calorie snacks contribute significantly to the rising tide of obesity since the 1970s, with the average American snacking one additional time per day and the average caloric load up at least 100 calories per snack (in some age brackets, much more). However you interpret these trends in snacking, one fact is pretty clear: snacking is universal among American adults.
In my experience, snacking can be incredibly beneficial when used “defensively” – that is, to prevent arriving at a meal feeling “starving,” such that you overeat to a caloric degree that far surpasses the level a snack would have provided. When gaps between meals are more than, say, five hours, this type of snack is often prudent.
Of course, I've also seen plenty of situations where the snacking itself is the problem, crowding out satiating, nutrient-dense meals with junky, low-quality calories from “snack foods” more likely to be high in sugar and processed grains than “meal foods.” When patients report snacking more than twice daily, I start to suspect that something may be amiss with their overall meal pattern – and that snacks may actually be their undoing. After all, each time we open our mouths for a snack, it typically represents slightly north of 200 calories. More than two such occasions daily, therefore, essentially adds up to a fourth meal.
Some of the most common pitfalls that lead to over-snacking include:
Breakfast too early? Many of my patients are under the false impression that it’s essential to consume breakfast within 30 minutes of waking in order to “boost the metabolism.” So even though they don’t necessarily rise with a raging appetite, they’re still sitting down for breakfast by 7 a.m. before they leave the house for work. Understandably – and appropriately – they’re hungry again by 10 or 10:30 a.m., and require a mid-morning snack in order to make it through to lunch, which is often consumed early in response to excessive hunger. One solution that works well for those of my patients with office jobs is to have a coffee at home while getting ready for work to perk up their mind and get their bowels moving – but then to defer eating breakfast until arriving at work, closer to 9 a.m. A slightly later breakfast means that hunger will most likely kick in right at lunch time – between noon and 1 p.m. – and eliminate the need for a mid-morning snack. It also helps keep lunchtime from drifting too early, which results in excessive early afternoon hunger as well.
Meals too small? Often, when patients come to me following a prescribed commercial diet plan – one in which they’re counting calories or “points” – they have a tendency to be stingy with meal calories, particularly at breakfast. I commonly see waist-watching women consuming meager 100- to 150-calorie breakfasts: a slice of 40-calorie bread with 1/4 cup cottage cheese and one piece of fruit; an egg-white omelet with spinach and no carb (not even fruit!); a solo banana or lone 80-calorie light yogurt.
It’s no wonder they’re typically hungry within an hour and a half and find themselves consuming a snack by 9 or 10 a.m. – only to be white-knuckling the hunger with coffee thereafter until lunchtime arrives. The vicious cycle repeats with a low-cal, low-carb lunch – such as salad or brothy chicken soup – that satisfies until about 3 p.m., when voracious hunger visits with a vengeance and the carb cravings ensue. And this is where the empty calorie grazing begins – candy, 90-calorie “fiber bars,” 180-calorie “energy bars,” 100-calorie packs of cookies. As these snack calories add up, the question becomes: Wouldn’t you have just been better off eating a larger, more satiating breakfast and lunch?
The answer is usually yes. Breakfast less than 250 to 300 calories isn’t breakfast, and an overtly low-carb breakfast may not help stabilize blood sugar satisfactorily to help maintain satiety until the next meal. Remember: By the time you eat breakfast, your body has been fasted for a solid eight to 12 hours. It’s used up the energy from the last meal you fed it, and is now dipping into its stores to help keep blood sugar levels afloat. If ever there was an appropriate occasion to feed your body a good carb, breakfast would have to be it.
Similarly, if you’re already starving by lunchtime, that means blood sugar is low – and the dieter’s trick of having a big old bowl of lettuce leaves or huge bowl of chicken soup is not going to deliver the usable energy your body needs to power through the second half of your workday.
Once your stomach works through the high-volume meal you tried to trick it with and realizes it only got 200 calories of usable energy, it will demand to be fed properly – generally to the tune of powerful carb or sweet cravings that typically visit at 3 p.m. In other words, if you have any chance of getting through the afternoon without a trip to the vending machine, office pantry or your co-worker’s candy jar, it’s in consuming a well-balanced lunch that contains a load of fiber-containing veggies in addition to a modest portion of satiating carbs (beans, lentils, quinoa, barley or sweet potato are my favorites) and some high-quality protein.
To be sure, a salad meal can be very satiating – but to be so for most people, it needs to have at least a modest portion of healthy carbs in it as well as some satisfying protein, such as egg, tofu, chicken, fish, shrimp or turkey. Similarly, soup can be a terrifically satiating lunch – such as a thick, hearty lentil or split pea soup or a bean and turkey chili, for example – with a small salad on the side to round out the meal perfectly. If you’re a sandwich person, don’t leave out the heaping portion of crunchy veggies on the side – such as a clamshell of grape tomatoes or pile of baby carrots. If sushi is your thing, pair your favorite roll with a side of edamame and a hijiki salad to balance out the meal.
Snacking from habit, not hunger? There are reasons other than hunger that people find themselves raiding the work pantry at 3 to 4 p.m. every day, and boredom and stress are high on the list. You’ve already been at work for six or seven hours, staring at a screen for several of them straight. Getting up from your desk is a break, and a snack is the perfect excuse.
Assuming you've had a great, well-balanced lunch, though, you may not actually be hungry at this time. If this sounds familiar, you may want to consider some non-caloric ways to break the tension, such as: popping a piece of sugarless gum; making a mug of unsweetened herbal tea; leaving the building to purchase a trashy gossip magazine; doing some yoga stretches in an empty conference room.
Alternatively, if you work late or typically consume later dinners, it’s natural and expected to feel hungry at some point in the later afternoon before dinner; this is particularly so for people who hit the gym after work before going home.
If you know you’re going to feel hungry, it’s best to plan for it rather than be left at the mercy of “whatever’s around” the office – which is usually a sugary bar, a bag of chips or M&Ms, or leftover cookies from someone’s meeting. Pack something from home – a plain Greek yogurt and berries; a packet of peanut butter and a banana; an apple and a string cheese; a mini hummus and some cut veggies; some sliced turkey and a 100-calorie pack of almonds. In other words, pack a protein and fiber containing “mini-meal,” and you’ll be far less vulnerable to the siren call of pretzels at work – and the bottomless bread basket at dinner.
By Tamara Duker Freuman