Eating between meals, or snacking, seems counterintuitive to weight loss. I mean, the trick is to eat less, right? Not necessarily. One of the problems people often face when trying to lose weight is getting too hungry between meals and then overdoing it at their next meal. Other people have problems with low blood sugar, which can cause hunger and food cravings. For those people, eating small healthy snacks between meals can be helpful. But it’s a slippery slope, and there are a few things to keep in mind so you don’t derail your diet.
Snacking between meals? Should you or shouldn’t you?
It’s 4 p.m. and you’re sitting at your desk. Your tummy is growling and you’re feeling fatigued. It’s been 3 hours since lunch and it’ll be another 3 hours before dinner—maybe more if you fit in that workout you planned. But you’re trying to reduce your calorie intake…
Sound familiar? What should you do? Should you or shouldn’t you go to the fridge or reach in your desk for a little something to eat?
The answer is, if you choose healthy snacks and they fit into your daily calorie budget, then yes. If keeping a healthy snack on hand keeps you from raiding the vending machine at 4 p.m., then yes. If a healthy snack prevents your blood sugar from dropping and gives you the energy boost you need to make it to the gym, then yes.
Yes, yes, yes.
Just make sure it’s a healthy snack.
What is a healthy snack?
Healthy snacks are those that satiate you, supply nutrients, and provide you with energy. They fit within the calorie budget you have set for the day (an estimate—don’t worry, no calorie counting necessary), based on how large your other meals are and how much activity you get.
They are also:
- Low in calories
- Low in added sugars
- Low in unhealthy fats
- Not processed and refined
- High in fiber and/or protein
- Contain some healthy fats
- Contain whole grains
- Consist of whole foods
Healthy snacks are identical to a healthy meal, only smaller.
So what are some good healthy snack ideas?
For about 200 calories or less you can have:
- One medium apple and 12 almonds
- One-half cup of berries with 6 ounces of plain yogurt
- One cup of raw veggies with 2 tablespoons of hummus
- A cup of tomato soup with a handful of whole-grain crackers
- A small banana and a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter
My favorite healthy low-calorie snacks are foods that are crunchy and last a long time. My go-to is snap peas—sweet, crunchy, and super low in calories. I can eat a whole pound for less than 200 calories, and I also get almost 13 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber, and three times the daily recommended intake of vitamin C. I’m not saying you should necessarily eat a whole pound in one sitting. Everything in moderation.
Air-popped popcorn is another favorite. Three cups has only 93 calories, 3 grams of protein, and 3.3 grams of fiber. I lightly mist the kernels with an olive oil spray, then toss with a pinch of extra fine sea salt. Three cups of popcorn takes a long time to chew. When you can enjoy a snack for a longer period of time, you will feel more satiated by it. Much more so than that chocolate chip cookie that is gone in two minutes and cost you 400 calories.
Speaking of which, be very careful of packaged foods that label themselves as healthy snacks. Protein and energy bars are a big one. Most energy bars are loaded with sugar, making them more like candy bars than a healthy snack.
If you’re looking for healthy snacks to buy at the grocery store, just head to the fresh fruit and vegetables section. Here’s what you can get for 200 calories or less:
- Two kiwis: 84 calories
- 20 baby carrots: 70 calories
- 20 grapes: 68 calories
- 20 cherry tomatoes: 61 calories
- Medium peach: 58 calories
- Medium red bell pepper: 37 calories
Fruit and vegetables are easily portable healthy snacks for work and make great healthy vegan snacks. You can always dip your veggies in hummus, or spread some peanut butter on your apple slices, just be mindful. Portion out the hummus or peanut butter, rather than taking the whole container to your desk. It is incredibly easy to eat an entire 8-ounce package of hummus without even noticing you’re doing it (trust me). Stay mindful!
You might also enjoy: Losing 30 Pounds in 30 Days: Is It Possible or Even Safe?
Do you really need a snack?
So, we’ve established that healthy snacking for the right reasons gets a green light. But it’s helpful to examine snacking a little deeper and determine if snacking is really necessary.
Biologically speaking, it’s probably not. Adults can get all the nutrients they need for the day with three well-rounded meals. If you are eating a healthy diet, and you have no underlying health conditions, you should also be able to maintain your energy levels throughout the day without snacking between meals.
Your body is a well-oiled machine that can function just fine without a constant stream of calories and nutrients.
Often the urge to snack has other causes besides true hunger. Such as:
Emotions: Boredom, sadness, stress, and anger can all cause you to want to eat. Some people soothe their emotions with substances like alcohol, while others turn to food. If you snack a lot, it’s worth noticing when you get the urge to snack. Is it in the afternoons at work when the clock seems to tick more slowly by the second? Is it when you have a tight work deadline and are feeling stressed? If this is the root cause of your snack attacks, then you should work on developing alternative coping strategies rather than looking for healthy ways to keep up your snacking habit.
Thirst: Seventy-five percent of adults are chronically dehydrated, and thirst is often mistaken for hunger. You may actually just need a glass of water.
Habit: Just like your dog knows he’s going to get his treat every afternoon, your body gets used to regular snacks and meals. You can train your body not to need regular snacks. (I could also train my dog not to appear by my desk every day at 3 p.m. like clockwork and stare at me until I get up to give him his treat.)
Weight loss and control is just as much about habit, behavior, and psychology as it is about exactly how many calories you’re eating and burning every day. That’s why I love the subject so much.
I recommend keeping a food journal and recording some observations every time you feel the urge to snack. Some things to take note of:
What emotions are you feeling? Are you feeling bored, sad, angry, or stressed?
How much sleep did you get last night? Get a fitness watch to help you assess your sleep duration and quality.
What did you eat at your last meal? Did you eat a mix of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs?
Are you hydrated enough? Women need about 11.5 cups of liquids a day, and men need about 15.5. If you’re active I recommend even more. If you have trouble keeping track, record it in an app or buy a smart water bottle. I use this one.
Is it just habit? Does it feel a little compulsive? Has your body just come to expect it?
Taking note of the above factors when you get a snack attack can often show you that it’s not really a snack you need. Here are a few other things you can do besides grab a snack:
- Drink a glass or two of water.
- Take a quick walk outside or just around your home or office.
- Do a chore. Fold the laundry or unload the dishwasher. Not the most fun option, but it will distract you.
- Call a friend if you’re feeling sad. Or, write in your journal.
- Do some deep breathing. It’s a powerful practice. Try a few rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Sit or stand up tall. Inhale for a slow count of four, hold at the top for 7 seconds, then slowly exhale for a count of eight.
This probably isn’t exactly what you thought you’d find when you were looking for healthy snack ideas online. But instead of just snacking, it’s important to consider why you’re snacking. This is especially true if you struggle to maintain a healthy weight. (Note: “healthy” is different for everyone)
I have mixed feelings about snacking. Personally I don’t snack much. I usually don’t feel hungry between meals, unless my last meal wasn’t nutritionally balanced. Of course, if I missed a meal (that rarely happens – I love meals) and I’m planning to work out, then I’m definitely going to have a small snack to give me some fuel. That’s snacking with a purpose.
Snacks should serve a purpose. If they don’t, they’re usually not necessary. That’s not to say that you can’t snack every once in a while just to enjoy yourself. After all, you only live once. Just stay mindful.