When it comes to eating, there are so many different opinions out there of what is actually best. Should you eat three big meals a day or are five smaller meals best? If you are in the former group, what about having snacks to hold you over in-between meals? If you’ve been wondering what to do when snack attacks come on—and how to handle it—we talked with Marci Clow, MS, Registered Dietician and Senior Nutritionist at Rainbow Light, to find out.
“There are really no hard and fast rules, and there is certainly no scientific merit to the phrase ‘don’t snack between meals,’” explains Clow. “How much and what kind of snacks to consume should be individualized, but for most people using the strategy of combining foods from two or more food groups, with the intent of including foods that promote satiety, helps keep you satisfied longer between meals.”
So snacking itself isn’t frowned upon in the world of nutrition. Of course, it is important to know why you are snacking—does your body actually need the fuel or is something else at play? Clow explains that there are many dietary, lifestyle, mental and physical factors that can be at play.
5 Triggers That Influence Cravings
- Stress Eating: “Some use food as a comfort to make them feel better when stressed, but physiologically speaking stress really can make your appetite voracious,” notes Clow. “Simply stated, elevated levels of stress hormones cause your system to think it needs to make energy to defend itself, causing the appetite to erupt.”
- Dehydration: “It is common for mild dehydration to be confused with appetite, both are regulated by the hypothalamus and sometimes when fluids are needed people reach for food instead,” she explains. “Taking this into consideration, start each morning by drinking a glass of water to stay on top of your fluid intake and try drinking a glass of water prior to grazing to potentially cut back on volume of food consumed.”
- Inhaling Your Food: “When you eat extremely fast, your brain doesn’t have enough time to process that your stomach is full and you tend to keep eating,” Clow shares. She adds that this fact was highlighted in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
- Hormones And Blood Sugar: “PMS aside, other hormonal issues can affect the desire to constantly nosh. An overactive thyroid gland causes energy to be burned faster than intended and is a common hormonal cause of never quite feeling full,” she shares. “Levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite, are increased when our bodies get too little sleep and leptin, which contributes to feelings of fullness, is decreased with inadequate sleep. As far as blood sugar, whether consistently too low (hypoglycemic) or steadily too high (such as with diabetes) blood sugar levels can also effect hunger. As with any concerns about your health, if you believe that eating habits are being impacted by hormones or blood sugar ask your doctor to assess your concerns.”
- Skipping Meals: “The most commonly skipped meal is breakfast, and although some might not feel hungry in the morning, breakfast is critical for giving you the fuel you need to make it through the day,” stresses Clow. “Consumption of a healthy breakfast is linked to many health benefits including weight control, attention span, concentration and improved performance, plus it helps you make it through the morning without being tempted to make unhealthy choices when all of a sudden you feel starving.”
The easiest way to satisfy your cravings is to give in to them—but in a healthy, manageable way. Clow notes that you shouldn’t deprive yourself, which can lead to overeating, but plan ahead if possible.
“For example, if you know you are going to be craving chocolate after lunch keep a couple of chocolate covered almonds in a small container in your purse or desk,” she explains. “That way you’re ready when your “need” for chocolate kicks in.”
Making something seem forbidden or being on too restrictive of a diet can lead to binging and make you feel out of control when making these food choices. Having healthy snacks on hand is the best way to stay prepared for snack attacks, and Clow shares that they should be nutrient-dense and combine complex carbohydrates, healthy fat and/or protein. Sounds complicated? Clow shares some go-to recommendations to make choices less daunting.
Helpful Rules For Snacking
- Go For Protein: “Protein needs vary, so a good rule of thumb is to provide a little protein at each snack or meal to spread intake throughout the day,” explains Clow. “Pair proteins with carbs for energy, and a bit of fiber to help with satisfaction.” Here are some suggestions:
- Apples and peanut butter
- Whole-grain crackers and cheese
- Hummus and sliced red bell pepper
- Yogurt with fresh fruit
- Hard-boiled eggs and a handful of grapes
- Whole-grain toast with almond butter and banana slices
- Cottage cheese and pineapple
- Substitute Fruits For Sugary Snacks: “Sugary snacks aren’t a healthy choice because they cause a quick spike in blood sugar, but after a short time leave you feeling sluggish and tired and you guessed it—hungry again,” Clow notes. “Although fresh fruit does contain naturally occurring sugar it is a great alternative for those with a sweet tooth who tend to go for sugary snacks such as cookies and ice cream.” So what’s Clow’s secret? Keep fruit at ‘eye level’ in the fridge so it’s the first thing you see when reaching for a quick bite.