SNACKING: Can be vital, must be satisfying, never ‘wrong’
I asked a friend what topic I should cover in my blog and she suggested snacking because, right now, our emotions and eating patterns may be out of kilter and we might be doing a bit more snacking than usual. Sadly and unjustifiably, we might also be beating ourselves up about it.
Now, my first thought was ‘people are going to be expecting a whole list of new recipes and fancy snack ideas but I’m not a chef. What on earth am I going to write?’
There are hundreds of recipes out there for ‘healthy’ muffins, energy balls, protein bars etc but why do we need a whole new set of foods just because it’s not a regular mealtime. And, I don’t know about you but I get a bit demotivated when I don’t have all the ingredients for a specific recipe sitting in my cupboard and, for many of us, having a batch of anything sweet and sticky sitting around is just too tempting. It tends to defeat the purpose if we eat the whole lot in one go!
Before the Second World War, snacking wasn’t really a thing, apart from maybe popcorn at the cinema in America. However, we didn’t suddenly evolve to need to eat between meals. Major leaps in the ability to safely package foods into individual portions was born out of necessity to feed the troops. This technology was then exploited by food manufacturers to fill our newly found free time over the following decades and feed us when our mothers started going out to do regular paid work. The three balanced meals a day became a distant memory and the snack was born.
Soon manufacturers started telling us what a snack portion looked like (but for whom and for when?). Food scientists found ways to play with our senses to make us eat more of their creations, such as the crunch and melt effect of many snacks which means that the food doesn’t stick around long enough in our mouth to truly satisfy us, so we pop another one in.
With the recent increase in home working, perhaps regular meals have returned to some households, but I suspect that with children back at school and economic pressures to work even harder, most of us have slipped back into old eating patterns, in which the snack plays a leading role.
So, if snacks are here to stay, we need to start seeing them in a new light. Snacking can be healthy and, for some people, it’s essential. All too often though, snacks come with an aftertaste of guilt.
So, in this post, I’d like to re-position snacking – I mean in a marketing way – and suggest how, with a little bit of planning, our snacks might meet the new brief.
However, whilst you’re still feeling fresh, I’ll sneak in a bit of science.
I’m going to talk very briefly about some of the key hormones and other compounds which tell us to start or stop eating, simply because it might reassure you to know that the apparently insatiable appetite which appears from time to time (or maybe daily) is not down to greed or lack of self-control, rather it is down to your body trying to keep you alive. The thing is, if we don’t reassure our body that it is going to get a regular balanced delivery of nutrients, it will keep begging for more regardless of how many calories we have given it.
Which bodily messengers cause a feeling of hunger?
Let’s start with Ghrelin, a hormone produced by our stomach. It tells our brain that it’s time to eat. It rises as we use up the fuel from the last meal and drops again about an hour after eating.
Have you ever heard of Prader-Willi Syndrome? This syndrome is defined by an insatiable hunger due to a massively increased production of Grehlin. It is a serious and disabling condition and gives you some idea of the extent to which we are controlled by signals from our body.
The power of our hunger hormones also explains why dieting for weight loss generally fails. Our body does everything it can to convince us to stop starving it.
Ghrelin also stimulates the production of Neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY shouts very loudly at the brain to ‘EAT’. The longer you ignore it, the louder it shouts and it has a particular predilection for carbohydrates and preferably something that will give the body a quick hit and plenty of it. You know the types of food I mean.
And, of course, with a sugar hit comes a sharp rise in blood glucose levels and consequent insulin rise, which allows the body to use the sugar. However, what goes up quickly, comes down quickly and we reach for the next sugar fix.
Does this feeling sound familiar?
As for which compounds tell us to stop eating: To be honest there are far too many to list. Our bodies house a very complex feedback system which is the subject of much research. Leptin and dopamine, PYY and GLP1 are some of the key contenders. Essentially, they let the brain know that we have eaten. Dopamine, for example, gives us that ‘Ooh, that was lovely and now I feel satiated’ type of feeling. And, Yes, sugary foods do prompt this response but studies suggest that protein may be an even more potent stimulator of dopamine.
Our genes also play a part, which means that our cells’ response to these messenger compounds may differ from the response of someone else’s cells and our metabolism follows its own personal circadian rhythm (or pattern) across the day. Consequently, what might make me feel satisfied at a particular time of day might leave you rooting around in the cupboard for more. You might be surprised to hear that studies on people who have undergone weight loss surgery reveal that 70% of the variability in weight loss is down to our genes. One day we’ll be able to tailor our meals and food types to suit our body’s individual needs but, for now, it’s a question of trial and error and seeing what feels right for us and, most importantly, being patient with ourselves in the process.
The bottom line is that, for most of us, eating regularly and with plenty of variety avoids the rollercoaster of peaks and troughs in these messenger compounds and gives us a little more control over what we consume. Of course, there are those of us who live quite happily and healthily with long gaps between meals and random eating patterns. If so, great. However, I know that, for many of us, this doesn’t seem to be working and is often part of a larger picture with regard to questionable self-care.
I am going to control myself in this blog and not bang on about gut microbes too much in my usual way. However, these gut residents work at their own rhythms too and enjoy a regular meal as much as we do. I’ll leave it there but remember we are not alone in our bodies, we have a lot of tiny mouths to feed.
Back to snacking.
Before we talk about physically nourishing our bodies, I want to acknowledge that there is a plethora of other reasons for eating and that snacking often occurs when the hunger hormones are inactive and our stomach is still digesting our last meal. So, let’s briefly address one of the most common alternative types of hunger.
What if it’s not really food you’re after?
Perhaps you’re just bored, anxious or need a comforting food hug and find yourself moving seamlessly from one food or drink to the next without feeling satisfied. Or, do you find yourself with your head in the fridge, wondering how on earth you got there or what you’re after?
All of the above is probably happening in millions of homes across the world and something that seems a pretty human and harmless response to a crisis. Food is, more than ever, not just a means of feeding our bodies.
For many people, sweet foods or starchy foods are the ‘go to’ comfort foods to soothe our painful feelings. If we deny our feelings the one thing they want and try to trick them with a stick of celery or a glass of water, we often end up eating way more than we planned on the circuitous route to realisation that the only thing that’ll do is chocolate or cake. The thing is, we invariably end up eating the cake too. We then beat ourselves up for ‘failing’ to control ourselves.
Ringing any bells?
Let’s not allow snacking to become another source of anxiety right now; another stick to beat ourselves with. You haven’t just robbed a bank or coughed over the queue at the supermarket!
Here are two possible kinder responses to this craving.
Firstly, why not just eat the food that you really want but without the ‘If I eat it standing up it doesn’t count’ mentality? Acknowledge that you want it. Put the cake (or whatever you crave) on a plate and sit down where you’d usually have your meals. Take a loving look at it and enjoy every mouthful. Use a fork or spoon if it makes it more of an event. Dedicate a few minutes to it and feel it do its magic. And give yourself a pat on the back that you’ve listened to your needs and practiced some self-care.
Alternatively, if you suspect that the need for comfort is the over-riding factor here, is there any other activity that might do the trick or, again, will that just put off the inevitable eating of cake?
It’s not about distracting yourself by putting the washing out or cleaning the bathroom, it’s about responding to that need for something soothing. Some people find it helps to make a list of things that comfort them – a hot shower or bath, a phone-call with a friend, a massage (if anyone in your bubble is up to it), a meditation podcast, a cheesy novel or TV series. You might just be tired and need to curl up in bed. Fatigue is often confused with hunger because it’s a time when we’re feeling low in energy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prowled around the kitchen feeling grouchy before realising that I just need a siesta.
One last tip. Studies into eating behaviours show that by introducing obstacles to get to the tempting treats, and hence a few seconds for your brain to reconsider, can work for some. This might be as simple as placing these foods in a sealed container in the cupboard or fridge, rather than having them lying around visible or in the top drawer next to your desk at hand’s reach. This tiny delay can give us just enough time to create an awareness of our behaviour and to make a different choice.
You might have heard of the many experiments carried out to assess our capacity for mindless eating; the popcorn at the cinema studies where individuals were able to eat an unbelievable volume of popcorn (even when it was stale) because they were distracted by the film (See Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating to learn more about how our brains can be messed with by a bit of packaging and ambient music.)
(A quick aside for those who started this unsettling Covid19 era with a pre-existing negative relationship with food. If your emotional responses to the current situation are triggering your unhappy relationship with food, I have attached a link to a piece written by Poet and Dietitian Lucy Aphramor in April this year which might help you understand your reactions and feel a little more peaceful around them. Just because everyone’s relationship with food may be altered to some degree by the current unsettling situation, it doesn’t reduce your suffering. Your feelings are real.)
But what if you’ve ruled out these emotional hungers.
Nope, It’s not comfort I’m seeking, I’m definitely hungry!
Eat! It’s a simple as that.
Ok, so maybe it’s 2 hours before your evening meal and you don’t want to spoil your appetite. Does this often happen around that time of day or is it a one off because you didn’t eat much at lunch?
Are you hungry because you’ve started exercising daily or because your appetite is small and you can’t manage much at mealtimes, or you’re feeding a newborn baby and don’t get round to feeding yourself, or the day is one long snackathon and you’re not getting all the nutrients you need?
Whatever the reason, you need to eat enough to keep you going. Otherwise you risk dipping into the primal hunger zone where the ‘EAT’ hormones kick in and you have no control over your choices. You’ve gone way past the red warning fuel light and are functioning on fumes! (I will continue with the car analogy later so this is just to warm you up to the theme).
For some this hunger might coincide with the children’s mealtime. Don’t torture yourself or you’ll just end up eating off their plates or opening the crisps or nibbling the ingredients you’re chopping up to make your own evening meal. Resistance of hunger is pointless. It’s your body telling you it’s hungry and needs food – why would you ignore it? You wouldn’t ignore the need to breathe!
And, if you feel like this regularly at a particular time of day, why not be proactive and get in there with a snack before you lose the ability to choose. You’re far more likely to make a healthy choice that way.
Those with a small appetite might want to reframe their mealtimes and think about 5 or 6 eating moments rather than forcing themselves to fit in with the normal 3 main meals a day which, for them, won’t meet their needs.
Let’s face it, you would probably only let your car run out of petrol once (or perhaps twice) before realising that you needed to keep a closer eye on the fuel gauge. (See, I warned you!)
This is how I see Snacking’s current positioning:
Something that’s ‘naughty but nice’, something to feel a bit guilty about afterwards and hence to be eaten quickly then forgotten. Research shows over and again that when you ask people to report what they’ve eaten over the previous 24 hours, they tend to under-report snacking and it’s not just due to not wanting to look bad, they have often genuinely erased it from their memories by never truly acknowledging they ate it in the first place.
The big reveal!
So, here’s how I’d like to position snacking. Think ‘Le Mans 24 hour car race’. Neither the drivers nor the cars could survive 24 hours without regular injections of fuel and rest.
Introducing ‘Snacking: A pitstop for the 24hour daily challenge.’
Just like the Le Man drivers and their cars, making it to the end of the race requires the right type of fuel and the right type of time out and the same goes for our bodies. (Don’t fret – I’ll stop the car racing metaphor now – it could get boring and I’ve just about exhausted my entire knowledge of the topic anyway).
In my blog ‘Back to Beautiful Basics on a Budget’ I talk about what makes up a balanced diet whether we are an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. Snacking can most definitely be part of this and should be if our appetite is small.
But, if you think that currently your snacks are not necessarily bringing much in the way of helpful fuel and you feel that your health might suffer, then it’s time for a bit of self-care.
How to build a healthy satisfying snack that will re-fuel you properly and keep your head out the fridge until the next meal.
If, when you’re preparing a main meal, you make an effort to produce a relatively balanced dish, why opt for only carbs and fat for the refuelling pitstops?
Eating a combination of food groups not only helps us meet our nutritional requirements to keep us healthy, it’s also more satisfying since we get a range of textures, smells and flavours to please our palate as well as the benefits of the different foods on our level of satiety, as we saw earlier. And, if we take time to eat a snack mindfully as we might a main meal, we’re less likely to find our head back in the fridge 10 minutes later.
Don’t forget the herbs, spices and zests either. Did you know that up to 80% of what we would refer to as taste actually comes from what we smell? So, having a few herbs growing on the windowsill, a lemon or lime in the fruit bowl and being brave with spices could really up the satisfaction level of your snacks.
How do we achieve this without spending our days cooking?
It’s all about leftovers and a bit of planning.
- Why not cook extra when preparing your main meal, pot up some extra mini portions immediately and freeze them or keep them in the fridge, ready to be eaten cold or re-heated the next day. The oven or hob are already on – exploit them. Since your main meals are likely to be the most balanced, you’ll be setting yourself up with the best combination of ingredients for your snacks.
- Whilst you’ve got the peeler and chopping board out, why not just prepare a few extra veg. Or grate a bit more cheese, slice a bit more ham etc. It saves on washing up too?
- Have containers ready to receive the prepared ingredients: empty jars, plastic pots and lunchboxes, ziplock bags etc and just stick the chopped ingredients in them as you go. You might prefer to keep the different food groups separate or make readymade balanced no-fuss snackpots for the next day by adding a bit of everything.
Some examples of snack ingredients. Combine as you like:
Carbohydrate: Energy-filled delivery systems for other yumminess
- Cooked potatoes, pasta, rice, couscous, bulgar wheat, quinoa etc
- Wholegrain bread, crackers, oatcakes or cereal. Cereal isn’t just for breakfast!
Protein: To satisfy our appetite more quickly and with the mouth-pleasing textures
- Meat or fish: leftover, cured or tinned. Preferably not the highly processed types with buckets of added salt.
- Chickpeas, beans, lentils: In jars, tins or soaked overnight and cooked.
- Boiled eggs (put a couple of eggs in the boiling water used for pasta or potatoes)
- Tofu: pre-cooked the night before.
- Cheese: Any cheese. Cheeses like feta, cottage cheese or cream cheese are great bases for last minute dips.
- Yoghurt: add some nuts, fresh or frozen fruit or a small handful of cereal
- Nuts and seeds
- A glass of milk – Any unsweetened type. Combine with some fruit for balance.
Vegetables and Fruit: Fibre packed bundles of vitamins and minerals.
- Whatever you like. Most veg taste great cold or reheated!
- Roast vegetables are delicious used cold in salads. Chop peppers, courgettes, red onion, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beetroot very roughly into large chunks, drizzle with olive oil and slide them into the oven whilst it’s on. This is a great way to use up anything that’s about to go off.
- Frozen peas and spinach can be added to your leftovers at the last minute before cooking if you’re after a hot snack. If freezer space is limited, stock up on tinned veg instead.
- Fruit: pair an apple with a slice of cheese or a pear with a few walnuts. These combinations are just made for each other. I remember watching in amazement on my first French exchange as the family sliced up an apple on their plate and took time over eating it. It just makes more of an event of the snack and that means our body acknowledges it.
- Don’t forget your pickles. They count too. Olives, gherkins, cornichons, capers, onions, sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes . .. they all add a wonderful zing and crunch to salads and have a long shelf-life. Your gut microbes will be smiling too.
Anything can go in a soup. The consistency of soups makes them very satisfying (and that’s based on science not just my humble opinion!) This is where tins of beans and lentils or leftover veg come into their own. You could always have a couple of basic packet soups in the cupboard and add to them to make them more hearty.
Tortillas, frittatas and quiches:
I just love these foods because they can be pre-sliced into snack-size portions, are fabulous hot or cold and can contain a range of food groups.
You can make them with pretty much anything that will mush together but white beans and chickpeas are particularly good as are the cheeses I listed above. Whiz them up with a chunk of red pepper, roast veg, onion or garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice, any herbs lying around, salt and pepper. This is by no means a recipe, but you get the picture. Have an experiment with a few leftovers. The dips will go perfectly with the sticks of carrot or other veg you chopped the night before.
You might not be able to fit carbs, protein and veg into every snack but by aiming for 2 at least and varying the combination across the day or week, dietary balance miraculously occurs.
Do remember that, if reheating leftovers, ensure they are piping hot. For tips on food safety, take a look at my ‘Back to Beautiful Basics on a Budget’ blog.
A quick focus on our older folk
As we age it becomes ever more difficult to maintain our muscle mass (something called sarcopenia). The best prevention is a combination of exercise and nutrition, in particular adequate protein. Hence, including a source of protein in your snacks will help meet your requirements which are deemed to be slightly higher than for younger adults. It’s important not to rely entirely on meat for this so look at some of the plant sources of protein to see how they might be included in snacks. Whilst fibre is essential for our health, too much can lead to insufficient stomach space for the other nutrients, so more is not necessarily better for those with small appetites.
Honey, I just shrunk the lunch
You might have spotted that the ideas for snacks would work perfectly well for lunchboxes or quick re-heat lunches the following day. As I said, the pitstop snacks are just normal meals but smaller.
And that is the whole point! Go snack.