Humans do not need to eat all the time to get the nutrients they need. Instead our digestive systems have evolved to eat meals at regular intervals throughout the day - usually eaten at 4-5 hourly intervals. This allows us time to do other things.
Snacking and grazing have replaced regular meals
But times have changed. For many people the traditional pattern of eating three meals a day has given way to frequent snacking and eating energy dense ‘snack foods’.
Is snacking a problem?
Snacking can be a problem if snack foods are high in energy and more food is eaten than the body needs. This can lead to obesity and other health problems.
Can snacking ever be a healthy way to eat?
Snacking can be part of a healthy diet if snacks contribute to only a small part of it. The government suggests that snacks can make up about 20% of our daily calorie intake, which for most adults is around 400 kcals a day - about two snacks, each containing 200 kcals. Snacks can also increase the diversity of the diet and provide a greater range of nutrients.
What sort of snacks contribute to a healthy diet?
Oatcakes, crackers, fruit, milkshakes, smoothies, vegetable sticks and dips are nutritious foods to enjoy as snacks. Try choosing snacks from different food groups to ensure nutritional balance i.e. cheese, yogurt and milk; wholegrain bread and crackers; fruit and vegetables; nuts, seeds and good quality chocolate.
When to eat snacks
Snacks are best eaten between meals when hunger strikes and the next meal is sometime away. Eating a snack should not prevent you eating a meal.
Cultural differences around snacking
Children in the US eat about 3 snacks per day obtaining around 27% of their energy from snacks and studies have shown they do not compensate by eating smaller meals. In contrast French children tend to eat one snack a day, usually in the afternoon. In the US parent’s often feel nervous about their children being hungry whilst in France they cultivate hunger so children enjoy meals when they sit down to eat.
Snacks and physical activity
For people who do a lot of sport and physical activity snacking can provide extra energy and nutrients to support training and performance. Nutritious oat based energy bars, milk, fruit smoothies and dried fruit and nuts can make an important contribution to the diet of an active person.
What should I do to beat my cravings for unhealthy snacks?
If you crave unhealthy snacks to overcome tiredness and boredom it is important to review your eating habits. Try replacing chocolate bars or biscuits with fruit that has a naturally sweet taste. Or you can eat a smaller amount of dark chocolate with a complementary flavoured fruit e.g. cherries. Or eat crisps with vegetable dips like hummus or guacamole.
Some good ideas for healthy snack foods:
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