Many people still have the mindset that we shouldn’t snack. In fact, I often tell people to include one or two snacks during their day. The problem isn’t that we snack, but what we choose to have as a snack.
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Going too long without eating can contribute to episodes of low blood sugar, even in healthy people. Eating every four hours helps keep blood sugar more stable.
If we go more than four to five hours without eating (while awake), we can experience low blood sugar, which can present itself as tiredness or weakness, shaking, headache, hunger, general discomfort, irritability and unclear thinking.
Some of those symptoms can lead us to make potentially unhealthy choices when we find food. Most people will go for a candy bar or chips instead of an apple and walnuts. Additionally, waiting until we are hungry can lead to overeating even healthy food choices.
When to snack
If you go from breakfast to planned lunch within four to five hours, you may not need a morning snack. For example, if you eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and have lunch by noon, you will most likely be fine. But, if you eat breakfast earlier, such as 6 a.m., or lunch later, such as 1 p.m., think about incorporating a mid-morning snack around 9:30 a.m. The time on the clock isn’t as important as the hours in-between eating episodes. If you have more than five hours between your planned meals, have a snack halfway between those eating times.
Most people could benefit from an afternoon snack. If you have lunch at noon and dinner is at 6 p.m. or later, then you need to consider having the afternoon snack around 2:30-3 p.m.
Even if we don’t feel hungry at that time, most of us would benefit from having something in the mid-late afternoon. If we try to hold out until we get home for dinner, then we tend to have two dinners: the food we consume as soon as we walk into the house to “hold us over” until dinner, then our real dinner.
Benefits of snacking
Having healthy snacks one or two times a day can help you eat fewer calories. Yes, even though you are eating more often, you are less likely to overeat at meal times. Again, waiting until you are irritably hungry isn’t self-control, but setting yourself up for overeating once you get food.
Snacking also gives you an opportunity to get some of those foods that dietitians are always telling you that you need more of: fruits and vegetables. It also can help you get more calcium and protein when you pair it up with the right foods.
What to choose
While you now know the benefits of snacking, possibly the most important thing now is your snack choices. Planning ahead and bypassing the vending machine are good starts.
If you can plan, then choose one of these combinations for the desk, afternoon shuttling children, or after school with the kids:
• Greek yogurt with your own fruit: 6 ounces of plain, fat-free Greek yogurt with sliced strawberries or blueberries (or whatever is your favorite fruit);
• fruit and peanut butter: sliced apple or a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter;
• celery slices with a tablespoon of cream cheese or peanut butter and raisins;
• whole wheat pita wedges with 1-2 tablespoons of hummus;
• string cheese and fruit or six whole-grain crackers
• 1 ounce or 1/4 cup mixed nuts or peanuts; or
• trail mix: nuts and dried fruit. It is OK if it also has chocolate in it.
If you must choose the vending machine or convenience store, look for these options:
• granola bar or cereal bar,
• trail mix,
• peanuts or other nuts; or
• peanut butter and crackers.
My favorite afternoon snack is 1 sliced apple with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or walnut halves and 1 teaspoon cinnamon sugar. In a zip-top bag or reusable plastic container combine the apples, walnuts and cinnamon. Shake. Mix in the morning or the night before, the juice from the apple combines well with the cinnamon.
Eat with your fingers or a fork. This snack has 200 calories, 9 grams of fat, 35 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber and 3 grams protein.
Shelley A. Rael is a health education consultant and registered dietitian with the University of New Mexico Employee Health Promotion Program. Rael also blogs for Fit magazine at abqjournalfit.com. Send general questions to Gayle Geis, Food editor, P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, NM 87103, or to firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t answer medical questions.