How many times have you snacked today? Should be easy to work out but, for many of us, it isn’t so simple.
There was that handful of sultanas in the car. And the chia pot in your morning meeting. The popcorn at 2pm, the nuts at 4pm, that quick granola bar to see you through F45... you get the picture. With the aim of eating healthier, we’ve replaced three big meals with more frequent snacks. Problem is, they’ve become too frequent: many of us now eat up to 15 times over the course of 15 hours, according to a study in Cell Metabolism.
And surprise, surprise – the same research found that non-stop chomping has nothing to do with hunger.
"There’s definitely a smart way to snack,” says Dr Lisa Young, nutritionist and author of The Portion Teller Plan. “But it’s easy to take it, even with healthy foods, too far.” And in addition to a widening waistline, eating 24/7 can have other, more serious health implications.
Why are we snacking so much?
First, a quick history lesson. The three-square-meals-a-day model of eating evolved with the 9-to-5 workday. Prior to the ’50s, snacks were as foreign a concept as deodorant to your train neighbour.
“Eating between meals only happened on special occasions, like having birthday cake,” says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Gradually, though, many nutrition pros began to suspect that chowing just thrice a day wasn’t the best idea. It can lead to stuffing yourself when you finally do eat, and the huge glucose dump from larger meals causes insulin to spike and fall, which can actually stimulate appetite. The occasional snack or mini meal, however, could help ward off binge-triggering hunger and keep your blood sugar and energy levels steady. When an explosion of convenience foods made it possible to fill up without missing a beat, set meal times went kaput.
What's the issue with snacking?
But, then those mini meals started getting bigger. And more frequent. And habit-forming.
“When you nibble all the time, you’re less conscious of what and how much you’re eating,” says Young. A Nielsen survey found that nearly 60 per cent of munch sessions are totally unplanned. Even if you stick to healthy stuff, eating more often makes it tough to keep track of kilojoules. Sure enough, the amount we take in from snacks has ballooned, from fewer than 1300 kJs a day in the ’70s to about 1900 today. That’s a difference that can add up to nearly 7kg a year. Yikes! Never actually working up an appetite can compound the problem (even the best schnitty is a let-down when you’re just not hungry, right?). And when you’re not satisfied, you’re more likely to keep grazing, says dietitian Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet.
More bleak news: research in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease discovered that flooding your body with a near-constant supply of kJs may cause your liver to store more fat, which could lead to insulin resistance and increase your risk of developing diabetes.
So how can we snack right?
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not advocating for a return to Mad Men– era mealtimes. Done right, snacking can boost energy and keep hunger in check. Heed these hacks to get your daily munching in order.
Listen to your gut
Literally – if your belly isn’t sending out feed-me rumbles, don’t eat. One Mintel study found that 62 per cent of people say they snack because of cravings, nearly a third blame boredom and another 17 per cent chalk it up to stress.
Keep the break, lose the snack
“For many people, a break in their day is just another excuse to eat,” says Gans. Undo the association between downtime and food by planning time to unwind around an activity, such as taking a walk or listening to a podcast. Simple!
Show up empty-handed
Keeping a bag of trail mix in the car for hunger emergencies sounds smart, until you polish it off Scooby style the first time you’re stuck in traffic. “We’re biologically wired to want to eat food the second we see it,” says Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University. Out of sight means out of mouth.
Divide and conquer
Take the total number of kilojoules you should be getting in a day and divide it by how often you eat. If you stick to just three meals, each can be pretty large (about 2760kJs for an approx 8400-kJ-a-day diet). But if you find yourself needing to graze at least once before lunch and again before dinner, you should be aiming for 2000kJs per meal and 1000kJs per snack.
Always go whole
The goal of a snack is to fuel you until your next meal. The less processed the better (obvs), especially when the food packs at least two of these three nutrients: protein, fibre and healthy fat. Portions matter too, since things such as nuts and dairy can be kilojoule dense (one of the reasons they’re so satisfying). Even in smaller amounts, these foods can ward off hunger (and that urge to throw a pen at Dean from digital with his lengthy pre-lunch preso).