Are you a grazer, an occasional snacker, or a strictly no-eating-between-meals kinda person?
Personally, I’ve always snacked and I have the occasional trawl-the-cupboards-and-eat-everything-in-sight kind of a day, or more often evening. And while I’ve never thought that the ‘what can I eat next?’ phenomenon is in any way healthy, I did at least think that a healthy snack between meals was keeping my blood sugar balanced. Now I’m beginning to wonder ….
As usual, there is conflicting research – possibly because thestudies don’t always specify what the snack is or whether everyone is eating the same snack, and there are usually other factors that could affect the results such as how much activity the study participants do, or whether they adjust the size of their meals or not.
However in terms of balancing blood sugar, even Diabetes UK says that snacking isn’t necessary. They say that if you are diabetic and are having to snack regularly to prevent hypos, you need to speak to your diabetes team. (Although the nutritionally balanced meal plans on their website include 3 snacks a day – mixed messages or what?)
The most common reasons for snacking are as:
- temptation – snacks are available and tempting
- hunger – this means either that the last meal wasn’t satiating, the diet in general isn’t meeting nutritional needs, or the gap between meals is too long
- Low energy – this is linked to whether the energy from the previous meal was released too quickly (for slow release, think things like porridge, beans, whole grains, protein foods) or being very physically active
- habit – it’s time for elevenses!
Now I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you that I very, very seldom snack because I’m hungry, and looking at that list made me think about why I actually do. I don’t tend to snack in the morning unless I’m out for coffee with someone, and then it’s a combination of habit, temptation and social norm (people will usually try very hard to persuade you to join them in the cake-eating). My afternoon snacking varies – if I’m at home I seldom bother but at work I absolutely crave a snack by 3.30/4-ish and it’s a low energy thing. I have a healthy lunch so either I’m not eating enough at lunch-time, or the lack of energy is actually because I need a break from the computer and a noisy office. In the evening, I tend to snack through habit and because I’ve run out of willpower to resist temptation.
So let’s look at the arguments for and against, and a couple of myths.
- If we are truly hungry, having a healthy snack may tide us over and prevent overeating at the next meal (but better planning could prevent us getting that hungry in the first place)
- there’s nothing wrong with feeling hungry by the time the next meal comes along – it used to be the norm and still is in parts of the world today (and I’m not talking about places where people don’t actually have enough to eat).
- research shows that there is a tendency to still eat the same amount at meal times whether or not we’ve had a snack, raising our total calorie intake for the day.
- we don’t give our bodies enough time to fully digest a meal (which takes several hours) if we’re snacking in between. This takes energy away from other processes the body is trying to perform. I think this is why we get sleepy after a really heavy meal – all the body’s energy has gone to the digestive process.
- if our snack is high in carbohydrates (think bread, biscuits, cakes, chocolate bars, and also many ‘healthy’ snack bars) the resulting insulin that remains in our blood stream for several hours is what makes us keep craving the next snack.
- if you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know that I’m very interested in Ayurveda and I think it was in connection with Ayurveda that I first came across the idea that a snack between meals was not only unnecessary but really not a good idea. Essential in Ayurveda is the digestive fire and Ayurvedic doctors believe, as above, that snacking interferes with proper digestion.
- eating every few hours boosts the metabolism – the research says this isn’t so
- snacking helps to balance blood sugar – although the research doesn’t support the claim, low carb/high fibre/high protein snacks raise blood sugar levels less than high carb snacks.
Seems like there are more cons than pros, huh? I was going to give some suggestions for healthier snacks, but probably most of us would do better without! Of course, we have to take our own particular circumstances into account – my beloved, for example, has a very fast metabolism and works in a very physical job. While I would prefer that his snacks were healthier, there’s no way he could do without them.
I loved this article ‘How to snack like a French person‘ – the main lesson I took from it was don’t let snacking be a habit but when you do, have something a bit special and enjoy every mouthful!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and whether this has changed your mind!) ….