Snacks – do they look after our health and weight?

A muffin or slice with a milky drink can provide 1/4 the kilojoules you need each day!

Do you regularly snack or graze? Are you driven by hunger, boredom, habit or the belief that the body needs a constant supply of food? Whatever the reason, the reality is that in most cases snacking works against our health and weight.
Snacking is almost a given these days. The 3 meal a day pattern (with little in between) is threatened as a profit driven and growing food industry needs us to eat more and more. Psuedo science tells us we need to drip feed ourselves with food, just as it tells us we need to do with water, where people cling limpet-like to their water bottles, fearful that letting go will cause instant dehydration.
Parents are scared that unless their little ones graze constantly, their developing brains will shrivel and die from lack of fuel. The reality is very different – for most of us, snacks are a nicety not a necessity!
How do we know this? Let’s look first at our physiology – our largely unchanged hunter gatherer genes provide systems that are designed for intermittent eating. Early man would not have survived if he needed a “drip feed” food system – our fat stores are evidence that we have the capacity to store kilojoules when consumed in excess and to release them when food is short. Complex and clever systems keep our blood glucose levels constant even if we are not eating – there is no physiological need for us to graze constantly which means for most of us snacking is more psychologically or socially driven.

There are some instances where snacking is justified and needed; where they are long gaps between meals, small children with small tummies or people who cannot eat enough at meal times may genuinely need snacks. For most of us however, the reasons behind snacking are not physiological i.e true hunger – reasons such as boredom, procrastination, a love of food, or simply because the food is there are common drivers for snacking or grazing.

If you snack regularly, it may be time to evaluate your reasons, particularly if you struggle with weight and/or suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high triglycerides or high blood sugar.

Snacking works against health and weight because
• It increases kilojoule intake. Typical snacks are high in kilojoules, fat, salt and/or sugar. A muffin with a cup of milky coffee for example, can add a whopping 2000 kilojoules to daily food intake. People who “just had a muffin” may be surprised to learn that this may contribute a quarter of their kilojoule needs for the day without contributing many useful nutrients!
• People rarely compensate for the kilojoules eaten as snacks by eating less at meals.
• People eating regular meals typically consume less kilojoules and more useful nutrients than people who graze or snack all day. This is because meal-type foods are typically healthier than foods we eat as snacks. Think breakfast for example, cereal and fruit or an egg on toast is much healthier than the muffin or scone that we might have mid-morning otherwise.
• People who graze have difficulty remembering all they have eaten. They tend to underestimate food intake, often by as much as 50%. They therefore tend to eat more than they need.
• Snacking is bad for teeth – it bathes the teeth in food and acids which promotes tooth decay and gum disease. The phrase “give teeth a rest” is helpful for health in more than just dental ways!

It is true however that some people do better with 6 small meals a day or find planned snacks helpful for whatever reason. In order to maintain health and a healthy weight while doing so it is important to
• Establish a pattern and stick to it – whether it be 6 small meals a day or 3 meals with a mid-morning and mid afternoon snack, sticking to the pattern and not deviating from it is the key.
• Plan the snacks/mini meals. As a guide, a snack between meals should not be greater than 150 calories or 650 kilojoules. This could come from a piece of fruit, a few crackers with hummus, a small tub of yoghurt, a piece of grainy toast with cottage cheese and tomato.
• Keep it healthy. Go for foods that are rich in essential nutrients. Ask yourself “is this snack looking after my health and weight or working against it?”
• Stay away from traditional snacks like muffins, biscuits, cakes, chippies, chocolate bars, sugary drinks – they contribute too many kilojoules and not enough essential nutrients; as such they do not look after health and weight.
• Put snacks on a plate and sit down to eat. Eat slowly and mindfully for maximum satisfaction. Snacks eaten this way are more likely to be remembered and factored into the day’s food intake.

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