to snack or not to snack?

To snack or not to snack?

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To snack or not to snack? That is the question! Snacks, or mid meals, are not good or evil. When used correctly, they can help you meet your health and performance goals.

What is a snack?

As a noun, a snack is “a light meal: food eaten between regular meals”. To snack (surprise, surprise) means “to eat a snack” (1).

In the nutrition world, we use the term “mid meals” to differentiate snacks from main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner). More specifically, in the Commonwealth world we talk about morning tea (the mid meal between breakfast and lunch), afternoon tea (between lunch and dinner) and supper (between dinner and bedtime).

The problem with snacking

For the majority of people, there is nothing inherently wrong with snacking. The problem is when quantity and/or quality are compromised.

Quality

At some stage, snacks became synonymous with processed foods. For example, the Australian Dietary guidelines recommend limiting the intake of foods high in saturated fat including “crisps and other savoury snacks”. They also say that “snack and fast foods and drinks – are energy-dense and nutrient-poor” and that “sweets and salted snacks have the lowest nutritional quality but are an inexpensive source of dietary energy”. To their credit, the guidelines also suggest that “Legumes, nuts and seeds can be included in the diet in a variety of ways, including as snacks” (2).

Quantity

The other problem is the amount and frequency of snacking has increased beyond most people’s actual requirements. Many of us eat too much and/or too often. If combined with a poor choice of foods, this can result in a large percentage of our daily intake actually coming from junk food.

To snack or not to snack?

The choice of how many meals to have in a day depends on many factors, including health considerations, activity levels and convenience. Below are several rules of thumb that can inform your decision, but ultimately you should decide what works best for you.

You should snack if:

  • You need to eat smaller, more frequent meals, e.g. you have had bariatric surgery, suffer from acid reflux or hypoglycaemia
  • You need extra energy and protein than what is provided at main meals to support growth, e.g. you are a child or adolescent, or you are pregnant or lactating
  • You need extra energy and protein than what is provided at main meals to support training and recovery, e.g. you are an athlete or recovering from injury

You should not snack if:

  • You are meeting your nutritional requirements at main meals and do not wish to change your body composition
  • You don’t have time to eat snacks due to work/study circumstances
  • Snacking triggers you to overconsume food and you need to watch your energy intake

What makes a snack healthy?

In general terms, a healthy snack is not overly processed and has a decent amount of protein and fibre. Keep in mind that individual needs vary, including cost.

  • Unprocessed. Whole, unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some dairy products are all great choices.
  • Protein. Protein is filling and it helps build/maintain muscle mass, which is important for metabolic rate, among many other functions. Therefore, I recommend choosing snacks that have a decent amount of protein (10-30g, depending on needs).
  • Fibre. Dietary fibre is important for digestive health, satiety, detoxification, etc. Choose snacks with a decent amount of fibre if you are not meeting the recommended intake (25+ grams per day for adult females, 30g for adult males) at main meals.

Healthy snack ideas

Below are some examples of healthy snacks that I recommend to my clients. Note that they will vary according to your particular needs and preferences. Moreover, you should take into consideration the cost and practicalities of bringing the snacks with you to work, school, etc.

Snack Energy (kJ) Protein (g) Total fat (g) Carbohydrate (g) Fibre (g)
Piece of fruit (e.g. banana) + 50g raw or dry-roasted nuts 1755 10.0 30.4 24.5 5.8
Veggie sticks (e.g. carrot) + 2 tbsp peanut butter 1091 9.4 20.1 9.0 5.0
170g plain unsweetened yoghurt + 50g raw or dry-roasted nuts 2025 19.3 37.9 13.7 3.5
170g plain unsweetened yoghurt + 2 tbsp peanut butter + psyllium 1690 19.6 27.8 14.2 6.5
Piece of fruit (e.g. banana) + individual tub plain unsweetened yoghurt 1025 12.0 8.1 27.6 2.4
Handful (50g) raw or dry-roasted nuts 1653 10.4 36.2 6.3 4.2
Small can of tuna in water 440 21.1 2.2 0.0 0.0
Small can of salmon in water 597 18.6 7.6 0.0 0.0
Small can of tuna in water + 1/2 avocado 1130 22.5 19.4 0.3 2.4
Small can of salmon in water + 1/2 avocado 1286 20.1 24.7 0.3 2.4
2 boiled eggs 548 11.7 8.9 0.7 1.1
2 boiled eggs + 1/2 avocado 1237 13.1 26.1 1.0 3.5
2 boiled eggs + 50g olives 976 12.7 19.2 1.6 2.3
Rice crackers + hummus (e.g. Obela Hummus To Go) 1402 8.1 27.0 11.7 6.3
Veggie sticks (e.g. carrot) + 100g hummus 1268 7.3 21.7 14.9 9.5
Energy balls (e.g. Tom & Luke snackaballs) 1230 9.5 15.3 30.5 6.4
Protein bar (e.g. 180 Nutrition low carb vegan) 670 10.3 8.8 5.6 9.8
25g roasted chickpeas (e.g. Happy Snack Company) 425 5.6 3.3 9.9 5.2
Jerky (e.g. Kooee!) 405 14.8 2.9 2.7 0.0
Jerky (e.g. Kooee!) + 30g raw almonds 1178 21.1 19.6 4.6 2.2
Regular flat white 640 7.7 7.8 13.5 0.0

Bottom line and recommendations

In summary, if you decide that you need some snacks in your day, make sure they are unprocessed and have a decent amount of protein and fibre. Choose foods that support your individual needs and preferences. Finally, take into account cost and convenience when choosing snacks.

References

  1. Merriam-Webster.com. snack: Merriam-Webster; 2019 [20 May 2019]. Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/snack.
  2. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2013.

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