Americans love to snack. We snack at work, at parties, at the movies, in the car… pretty much anywhere we can get a few fingers free to grab a bite of food. As a nation we’ve elevated snacking to an art form, and on the surface it seems like it has no boundaries.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with snacking. Having a small bite to eat between meals is a great way to give your metabolism a little kick and keep you from becoming ravenously hungry later, which can lead to overeating. Snacking is also fun, and can be a great way to socialize and connect with others.
But there is a difference between snacking and compulsive, emotional or hormonal eating. There is also a difference between snacking and bingeing.
The Purpose of Snacking
Snacking always has a purpose. If we were less emotional beings, it would almost always serve to prevent hunger. But since our motivations for eating tend to be complex, identifying all the reasons we snack is important in helping us decide how to approach it.
1. Regain attention
Being hungry is exceptionally uncomfortable. Knowing it will still be awhile before the next meal, a small snack is a great way to buy a few hours of focus and attention, allowing us to be more productive without disrupting our schedule.
2. Curb overeating
As mentioned above, snacking can also be important in preventing overeating. When you’re starving, your eyes can easily become larger than your stomach. And since it takes at least 20 minutes for your satisfied stomach to communicate to your brain via your bloodstream that you are no longer starving, that time can be the difference between a sensible meal and a binge. It’s best to avoid becoming deliriously hungry in the first place by having a small snack in the interim.
Between meal eating can be initiated for less utilitarian purposes as well. For instance, snacking is a fabulous epicenter for a social event. As many awesome organizations have discovered, food is a great leveler and platform for fostering interaction and collaboration, a value far greater than the price of a cheese plate.
4. Tasty taste
Sometimes the best reason for a snack is that food just tastes good. Maybe you didn’t anticipate your officemate bringing in samples of her mom’s famous baklava, but some foods are just worth making a little extra room for. This kind of snacking may bring in some extra calories, but it isn’t the end of the world so long as you adjust for it later (a slightly smaller dinner or longer workout).
Food cravings are the least awesome reason for snacking. They can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, mental disquietude, and can seem to come out of nowhere. Though giving into cravings sounds like a bad idea, attempting to ignore them can be distracting and often pointless. (How many of you can actually ignore your cravings if the food you want is available? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) So it is better to have a strategy for dealing with cravings rather than waste your time and energy putting off the inevitable.
Goals of Snacking
No matter what your reason for snacking, the goal should always be satiation. If you are hungry, you want to eat enough to regain your attention and avoid later overeating, and that’s it. If you’re snacking at a social event and aren’t hungry, a few bites should be enough to get you chatting. If a mid-day hors d’oeuvre tastes amazing, a bite or two should satisfy your curiosity. If you’re craving something, you want to stop the craving as quickly and effectively as possible.
Snacking should be a clearly defined occurrence, not something that drags out over the course of hours. It helps if your snacks come in defined quantities to prevent mindless eating. Choose foods that are dense and slowly digesting so you feel like you’ve eaten enough and aren’t tempted to return for round two.
Thinking about foods in terms of their macronutrients is rarely useful, but as a rule of thumb the most filling foods tend to have:
Or some combination of these. Foods that have a lot of sugar or refined carbohydrates tend to do the opposite, and encourage continuous eating.
When eating for hunger, it is also a good idea to find snacks that are on the healthier side–nutrient dense, whole and unprocessed foods.
Snacking should be enjoyable and mentally satisfying as well. You should love the food that you eat as much as the clothes you wear and books you read. Eating is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Cravings are a different beast, and can often be alleviated without the specific food you think you need. For cravings, healthy options should be your first resort. Low-calorie beverages such as sparkling water or herbal tea can also be effective.
Healthy Snack Ideas
Here are some snack ideas to get you started, but don’t feel limited by this list. Start with foods you enjoy and work from there.
- Nut butters
Preserved meats (highly processed meats aren’t healthy, but small quantities can be useful for curbing your appetite)
- Smoked salmon
- String cheese
- Fancy cheeses
- Kale chips
- Bell pepper
- Boiled eggs
- Sparkling water
- Tisane (herbal tea)
- Dark chocolate
- Dried fruit
- Mint/herbal tea
- Juice spritzer (mixed with sparkling water)
- Fruit/nut bars (e.g. KIND)
What are your favorite healthy snacks?
Originally published December 1, 2010.