How to Properly Snack Throughout the Day

Snacking isn’t necessarily bad for you. Like so many things in life, it simply requires care and moderation.

But if you find yourself reaching for a candy bar in the mid-afternoon, shoveling in popcorn during your latest Netflix binge or feeling peckish all day long, it might be time to reconsider how you handle your cravings.

Learning to snack properly can help you reach your health goals. Here’s what you need to know.

When to Snack

There is no solid evidence to suggest that snacking at any particular time of day is always better than another.

Nutritionist Megan Mullin argues that eating throughout the day can help you avoid the hunger that often leads us to binge on unhealthy foods. She suggests eating small meals every three to five hours throughout the day and forgoing larger meals.

Of course, if this kind of regimen doesn’t work with your schedule, there are other ways to keep hunger and cravings in check. You can still eat three nutritious meals a day and use healthy snacks a tool to help you through those moments when you just want to eat all the junk food available.

Zoe Bingley-Pullin writes that intentional snacking in this way can help you avoid hunger, much the same way Mullin’s program works. Bingley-Pullin recommends eating for the right level of hunger with each snack. So, if you have just worked out and are feeling quite hungry, you might go for a more calorie-dense snack. However, if you just need something to satiate you until dinner, you might grab some fruit.

Slow, Mindful Snacking

Whether you want to eat small meals throughout the day or just nibble a little between normal meals, you should eat when you have the time to be mindful about your consumption.

Researchers Yumi Hurst and Haruhisa Fukuda from Japan’s Kyushu University Graduate School of Medical Sciences have found that the speed at which a person eats has a notable impact on their weight.

By studying data from health checkups from 60,000 patients over a few years, the researchers found evidence that just slowing down your eating could keep you healthier. In fact, people who ate slowly were 42 percent less likely to be obese.

“Changes in eating speed can affect changes in obesity, BMI and waist circumference,” they write. “Interventions aimed at reducing eating speed may be effective in preventing obesity and lowering the associated health risks.”

Another part of mindful eating is not being distracted by the television, work or anything else. Marsha Hudnall, president of The Center for Mindful Eating, says that practicing mindful eating can help you build a better relationship with food and a deeper understanding of what you put into your body.

By savoring every bite of your snacks and being completely in the moment, you will be able to better tune into the cues your body is giving you about how full or how hungry it’s feeling. With practice and time, you will identify the foods that make you feel the best and learn how to naturally stop eating when you’re feeling full.

Snacks to Fight Inflammation

One of the major causes of premature aging is inflammation. Even low-grade inflammation can lead to problems over time. You can use your snack time to fight this phenomenon by opting for the right foods.

Researchers J. A. Vernarelli and J.D. Lambert studied more than 9,000 adults to see whether there was a connection between flavonoids—nutrients found in many of the plants we eat—and both obesity and inflammation. Not only did the research find that people who ate plenty of flavonoids had lower rates of obesity, they also discovered that women who consumed more flavonoids had lower C-reactive protein levels.

C-reactive protein levels are reliable indicators of a person’s inflammation and risk for inflammation-related diseases. The lower the levels in the body, the less inflammation the person has. Therefore, a diet high in flavonoids may play a role in decreasing inflammation.

So, what are these flavonoids and how do you get them? Luckily, they aren’t hard to incorporate into your diet. Dawn Bialy of University Health News recommends the following snackable fruits:

  • Berries of all kinds
  • Citrus fruits
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Plums

While flavonoids can fight inflammation, you shouldn’t rely on a handful of blueberries alone to push back against the aging effects of chronic inflammation. Claudia Wallis at Scientific American warns that nutrition is more complicated than that. Go ahead and eat the anti-inflammatory foods, “But remember, context!” she writes. “So don't [consume] it with cookies and chips.”

Instead of relying on anti-inflammatory foods to do the hard work for you, think of them as another tool in your toolbelt.

Snacking to Lose Weight

A recent study found that 2 billion people around the world are overweight or obese. If you count yourself among those 2 billion people, consider making weight loss one of your top anti-aging and health goals. Otherwise, you could be at risk for serious conditions.

Dr. Christopher Murray, one of the researchers who worked on the study, warns that obesity should be taken seriously to prolong your life. "People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk—risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions," Murray says, “Those half-serious New Year's resolutions to lose weight should become year-round commitments to lose weight and prevent future weight gain.”

As you age, obesity becomes even more of a risk. Researcher Daniela Frasca draws a straight line that connects obesity, aging and inflammation. Frasca’s research suggests that when you combine the risk factors of increased age and obesity, chronic inflammation becomes a major problem.

If losing weight is part of your set of goals, there’s good news: you don’t have to cut out snacking. You can still snack throughout the day if you wish, but you may want to adjust what you eat and how much.

AARP’s Jessica Thiefels recommends that anyone who wants to lose weight simply follow the the calories in, calories out rule. That is, you should expend more energy (calories) throughout the day than you consume. To do this successfully, you may wish to track your calories, at least until you get the hang of it.

Apps like MyFitnessPal and LoseIt allow you to track the foods that you eat, your daily activity and more. Using this information, the apps give you a budget for calories you can eat every day. No foods are off-limits with this method, including at snack time.

However, you must stay within your calorie goal for this to work. Look for low-calorie snacks to tide you over between meals; the editors of Eat This, Not That have a great list of 50 easy-to-find snacks that can help you reach your health goals.

Tips for Snacking Smart

Nutrition is a complicated subject, which is why there are so many fad diets out there. However, there are some widely accepted ways to make smart snacking decisions. Below are some of the best tips for creating healthy snacks to keep yourself from binging on less healthy options.

Find the Right Macronutrient Balance

If you would rather put your own snacks together than rely on pre-packaged foods, you can easily build the perfect snack using the “protein plus produce” approach. Recommended by Jackie Newgent, RDN and culinary nutritionist, this approach helps ensure your snack has some protein to keep you satiated and an item from the produce aisle—vegetable or a fruit—to give you the jolt of energy you need.

If you’re a carb-craver in the middle of the day or if you have diabetes, pair a food high in either protein or fat with every carb-based food you consume. Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, an RD and diabetes educator, says this pairing delays carb digestion and stops the blood sugar spike.

Clock Enough Z’s

Those who struggle with the urge to snack all day may just need to sleep better at night. "Research shows that sleep deprivation can impair glucose metabolism and affect hormones linked to hunger, appetite and body weight regulation,” says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LD. Go to bed early, keep electronics out of the bedroom, and consider taking a supplement before bed to ensure you’re getting optimal shut eye.

Keep Junk Food Out of Sight and Out of Mind  

If just the sight of bright candy wrappers and chip bags makes you crave unhealthy snacks, consider putting them out of the way. This is especially important at work, where candy jars abound. Reporter Lisa Tolin notes several studies show that just putting tempting goodies out of sight helped people consume less. Even putting candies behind opaque glass instead of a clear jar can significantly reduce consumption.

Give in to Cravings—With Moderation

There will be times when the urge to snack on something “bad” is just too strong. It’s OK to give in to these temptations sometimes—and it might even be healthy to do so. Shereen Lehman, MS recommends eating just one cookie, one serving of chips or part of a candy bar every once in a while. Think of these items as “treats” instead of “cheats”—feeling guilty about a little indulgence is more likely to put you in an “all or nothing” mentality (“I’ve had one, so might as well eat the whole box.”) Aim to eat 80 percent home-cooked whole foods and use the remaining 20 percent to be flexible with your diet.

Healthy Snacking as Part of a Healthy Life

No singular snack method will work for everyone, so be sure to keep an open mind. It’s important to experiment and try new foods and ways of eating to see what keeps you from reaching for the donuts.

Once you know what works for your lifestyle, incorporating those habits into your wellness journey will feel a lot more intuitive. A few healthy snacks aren’t a comprehensive solution, but they pair well with a balanced lifestyle, smart day-to-day dietary habits, regular exercise and nutritional supplements.

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