Some people can get through the day without snacking. Eating three healthy and nutritious meals, and avoiding eating between them, is often the best option. People adopting a healthier lifestyle to lose weight are often advised to cut out snacks from their diet altogether. But is that really good advice? Not necessarily. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggests that snacking can be part of a healthy diet or even a weight loss program.
The important factors are what you snack on and why you snack. If you are genuinely hungry, then you should eat something, even if you are between meals. Eating when hungry is natural and healthy; your body is telling you that it needs more energy. Eating a small, healthy snack can give your body enough energy to keep going and even help you to burn fat. A quick, nutritious snack can prevent you from becoming “over-hungry” and resorting to eating fatty, sugary foods to compensate for your body’s energy deficit.
It is important to distinguish between hunger, appetite and craving. Hunger is a physiological reaction which alerts your brain to an energy deficit, and is usually accompanied by discomfort in the stomach and intestinal contractions experienced as “a rumbling tummy.” Appetite is the natural response to hunger and stimulates you to eat. However, appetite can also be stimulated by external influences, such as the smell of something tasty, even when you are not actually hungry. Craving is a psychological mechanism usually triggered by an emotional state and is often associated with ‘comfort eating.’
The key to healthy snacking is to snack only when you are genuinely hungry, and to eat the right kind of food. Healthy snacks include dried or fresh fruit, nuts, raw vegetables, rice cakes, seeds and yoghurt. If you are likely to want to snack, it is a good idea to make sure that you have some of these healthy options to hand. The worst kinds of snacks are cookies, cakes, potato chips and chocolate bars, which usually contain lots of sugar and fat, and are of practically no nutritional value.
Sometimes, people confuse hunger and thirst. If you feel the urge to snack, try drinking a glass of water and see if you are still hungry a few minutes later. If you still have the urge, try to stop and ask yourself what you are really thinking and feeling, and what has triggered the desire to eat. If you notice the desire to snack is linked to stressful thoughts, anxiety or an external circumstance, it might be better to deal with that situation rather than snack. If it is just a habit, try to replace it with something else such as going for a quick walk or simply taking a break from work.
You should never have to go hungry to be healthy or to lose weight. Snacking can be part of a healthy diet. The key is to keep an eye on your motives and make informed choices about how you respond to either hunger or cravings. If you do snack, then choose healthy, nutritious foods to snack on.