As of 2016 one third of Americans, energy intake (calories) comes from snacking. The majority of these calories come from energy-dense and nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods.
The rise in calories coming from snacks can partially be attributed to increased snack size and packages over the years. But also to the changing landscape in the way we live. Many of us are busier than ever and find the convenience of already-prepared and highly palatable foods hard to resist.
Today’s article was written to help define what snacking is and isn’t and why a clear definition is important. Plus, you’ll learn how to snack smarter. While getting some practical and straightforward snacking ideas to help you lose the weight and keep it off for good.
What is snacking anyway?
This is the question that led to writing the article. There’s no clear definition of what snacking is. It varies from person to person. I reached out to clients and friends of mine and responses were all over the map.
- time of day
- eating occasion
- type of food
- amount of food (calories and visual size)
- location of where you eat
- eating food between meals
In one study a group of Undergraduate students defined it as eating alone, short eating periods, using disposable utensils, choosing food of low nutritional quality, and even mentioned standing while eating.
But there are some questions about snacking too. How long after a meal is too short to consider it a snack? 15, 30, 60 minutes?
How many calories is too much for a snack? When does it turn into a meal? Is there a price point for a snack? Are there specific snack foods?
It’s important to get a clear definition of what snacking is and is not because as you’ll see later, it could influence what, how, and how much we eat.
Snacking. Why do we do it?
We snack for many reasons.
1: Personal – Maybe you enjoy snacking or it’s your preferred way of taking in calories.
2: Social – Modeling behavior from family and social norms. Did you grow up having snacks? If your family and friends snack you probably will too.
3: Environment – Can influence whether we snack or not. A candy dish at work, chips or fruit left on the counter at home, a special event.
4: Physiological reasons – Maybe we’re actually hungry and don’t have access to a full meal.
5: Socioeconomic status and demographics – Can also influence whether we snack or not. Those in “lower” socioeconomic standing tend to snack more and have less access to certain foods for meals.
6: Snacking can be psychological as well – Being angry, lonely, tired, stressed, or bored can influence whether we snack or not. Emotional eaters and those under stress tend to gravitate to energy-dense sweet and fatty snacks.
Some other reasons we may snack.
- when distracted
- and more
What is satiety? What snacks are most satiating? Why is this important?
Satiation is the feeling of fulness after a meal. A physical feeling. But it’s also a psychological feeling. Part of satiation after a meal is feeling satisfied. Sometimes when we eat we may feel physically full but not satisfied. It’s like the meal was “missing something.”
Individual preferences and personal experience with different types of snacks will influence this. You may find an apple and string cheese a very satiating snack. While your friend does not.
Popcorn may be a trigger food for you that leads to overeating. A friend of yours may have no issues stopping at a couple of handfuls.
Things like the satiation index can help us learn more about what foods might be more satiating than others. Your personal experiences and preferences with foods will tell you a lot as well.
Research shows snacks higher in protein, fiber, and whole grains can promote satiation. Even processed foods that contain these things.
A study conducted by Marmonier et al. Examined the effects of the nutrient composition of an afternoon snack consumed while not hungry on how soon the next meal was consumed.
The sample of young men was given a high-fat, high-protein, or high-carbohydrate snack to be consumed 4 h after the beginning of lunch. The consumption of the high-protein snack delayed the request for dinner by the greatest length of time, followed by the high-carbohydrate, and then the high-fat snack.
Snacking: Should you have one or skip it?
As I mentioned in the article, how to stop mindless snacking. There’s nothing inherently wrong with snacking. Snacks can be a part of your diet and adjusted for your goals. They can also be omitted and you’ll be fine. However, some studies suggest that the more we snack, the less “healthy” our diets may be.
In an analysis of NHANES data from 1988 to 1994, it was found that individuals who skipped a meal but ate several snacks had less “healthful” nutrient intake when compared to those that had 3 meals, with or without snacks.
Diet quality was defined by macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) and micronutrients intake, including cholesterol, vitamins B-6, C, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, potassium, and fiber.
Those that ate all 3 meals, including snacks, had the highest micronutrient intakes except for cholesterol, B-6, and sodium. Persons who skipped breakfast but ate 2 snacks had the lowest intake of micronutrients except for sodium.
It was also found that the way we classify eating, meals versus snacks, may lead to choosing more nutrient-dense foods and how satiated we feel. Even when the snacks and meals are similar in caloric value.
We tend to consume more calories after a snack than after a meal. Food diaries and intervention studies have indicated that eating between meals does not affect the number of calories eaten at the next meal. The results of these studies suggest that simply the way in which an eating occasion is labeled may influence the choice of food, satiety, and daily caloric intake.
The variety effect and how it influences snacking
The variety of snacks available to us also influences how much we consume. Specifically during special events and across meals. When you eat one food the pleasure of its taste decreases. Eating a variety of foods does the opposite. There’s even some evidence to suggest that it may delay feelings of fullness and satiation.
This doesn’t mean you need to eat chicken and broccoli all the time or to only snack on apples. But keeping your meals and snacks to similar foods could be beneficial when trying to keep calorie intake down.
Is 200 calories a lot for a snack?
Yes and no.
It comes down to what your goals are. Yes, it’s too much if your goal is fat loss and that snack puts you in a caloric surplus. No, if it does not.
This would be the same answer if you asked if 100, 300, or 500 calories is a lot for snacks. It really depends on the person, their goals, and calorie needs.
What are some healthy snacking options?
Before we jump into some snack Ideas let’s go over four concepts to help you snack better.
1: As a general guideline, make snacks fit in the palm of your hand. A small handful of nuts, a piece of fruit, a couple of hard-boiled eggs.
2: Create calorie awareness by reading labels or looking up nutrition info online. We’re really bad at estimating how much we’re eating. Learn more about what and how much you’re eating by reading the labels of foods and looking at things like serving size and calories per serving. Be a weirdo sometimes and throw your snack on a food scale.
3: See if it’s physical hunger or something else. Most often we snack for reasons outside of physical hunger. Before reaching for a snack ask yourself if you’re physically hungry or maybe angry, lonely, tired, bored, or stressed.
4: Pre-portion snacks: The good and the not so good ones. Try to avoid eating out of bags and boxes. Place things like chips, crackers, and nuts in pre-portioned zip lock bags.
5: Protein and fiber: Choosing snacks that have protein, fiber, or are a combination of both maybe help you to satiated without adding a ton of calories to your diet. Not sure what has protein and fiber? This is where reading labels and looking food facts up can help you. See how this is coming together 😉
Simple snack ideas
- A piece or two of fruit
- String cheese
- Pre-cooked proteins like grilled chicken and smoked salmon
- Hard-boiled eggs with salt
- Turkey roll-ups (turkey slices with sprouts or veggies stuffed in. Or cheese)
- Air-popped popcorn
- Veggies with hummus
- Pita bread with hummus
- Protein bar
- Berries and yogurt
- Cottage cheese with fruit
- Rice cake with nut butter (be mindful of the portion)
- Avocado with salt
- Crushed nuts and banana bowl
- High fiber toast and nut butter
Create as much calorie awareness as you can by reading labels and looking up nutrition info online. Don’t be afraid to throw foods that are difficult to eyeball portions on the scale.