A: Snacking is not a terrible habit. In fact, most nutrition experts agree that regular healthy snacking is a smart nutrition practice. It provides valuable nutrients in between meals and also keeps you from getting too hungry. If you don’t eat enough and you allow yourself to get extremely hungry, you may end up overeating when food is available to you, leading you to consume extra calories. Snacking is especially important for individuals over age sixty-five. At this stage of life, people tend to eat less for a variety of reasons (e.g., changes in appetite or taste, for example), which puts them at risk for not getting enough nutrients, particularly protein. Snacking regularly between meals helps older adults achieve a nutritionally sound diet. 1
I’m sure you noticed I said healthy snacking. This means choosing snacks that are calorie-controlled and full of nutrients, and planning for them in advance. A healthy snack contains a combination of a carbohydrate and either a protein or fat, and usually runs between 100 to 200 calories. Here’s your quick cheat sheet: starchy foods like crackers, bread, cereal and even fruits and vegetables are all carbs; cheese, eggs, meat, poultry and tofu are all proteins; oils, butter, nuts, avocado, and olives count as fats.
Decide in advance what your snack(s) will be for the day, based on your calorie needs. For example, if you need 1,500 daily calories (divided roughly into 300 for breakfast, 400 for lunch, and 500 for dinner), that leaves 300 calories to split into two snacks, about 150 calories apiece. Choose two 150-calorie snacks that fit the aforementioned criteria and make sure you have the ingredients on hand for both. This is key for stopping yourself from snacking on “anything and everything.” By planning, you’re giving yourself permission to snack–on your planned snacks only. This way, you don’t feel deprived or hungry, yet you’re not overdoing it. It’s a win-win situation!
Truthfully, the occasional unhealthy snack can fit into a healthy diet, if you plan for it. That’s what balanced eating means–every once in a while, you treat yourself in a controlled way, but you balance it by eating healthfully most of the time.
Still, I know unhealthy snacking can get out of hand, especially this time of year. If your family is anything like mine, you probably have Purim candy, cookies and chocolate leftovers lying around until practically the week of Pesach. If this sounds even a little familiar, it could be one of the main reasons you’re experiencing such a strong urge to snack. Think about it–every time you open that kitchen cabinet, you’re confronted with heaps of jellybeans, potato chips, or chocolate chip cookies. Sure, you can ignore them at first, maybe resist the second or third time, but most likely you will give in at some point and indulge.
So if you’re ready to kick the snack habit for good, you’ve got to change your environment. You need to be surrounded by things that help you work toward your goals, rather than away from them. So get rid of the junk–throw it out or give it away if you hate the thought of “wasting” food. If your kids (or roommate or spouse) insist on having it in the house, it can’t be frontand- center in your kitchen. Stash it in the basement or garage. You’ll quickly learn the veracity of the expression “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s especially important to remove your “Goliath” snack foods. These are the goodies you just can’t resist. (Mine is Viennese crunch–mmm!–but you won’t find any in my home.)
Don’t think hiding the junk will work for you? Research suggests otherwise. In a unique study, researchers filled two types of bowls–clear and opaque–with candy and placed them either on a secretary’s desk or two meters away. The secretaries ate more candies when the bowls were closer and when the candies were placed in clear bowls (and were therefore more visible). They also tended to underestimate how many candies they ate when the candies were on their desks, yet overestimated when the candies were further away. These results show that people have more difficulty controlling their intake of treats directly in sight–and that they really can’t trust how much they think they ate.2
You may still get struck by the urge to splurge even when you don’t come face to face with hoarded junk. At times like these, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? (Clues for true physical hunger include stomach rumbling and feeling general hunger, not hunger for a specific food.) If the answer is yes, it’s okay to have a healthy snack. If, however, you’re not hungry, distract yourself for ten minutes with another activity; you may be surprised that the cravings disappear.
If the cravings are still there after your wait, try to identify the taste you’re looking for: Is it something sweet? Crunchy? Salty? Then come up with a healthy snack that will satisfy that taste or texture. For example, if you want something sweet and creamy, you may be satisfied with a cool fruited yogurt–a terrific snack idea. If you want a crunchy or salty treat, how about some juicy pickles?
If you tend to have a sweet tooth, fruit could be your new crave save. Analysis of the national survey Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII) showed a relationship between having a “sweet tooth” and enjoying fruits versus enjoying vegetables. 3 So when a sweet craving hits, try out some apple slices, melon balls, or bite into a ripe, delicious peach or plum.
If chips or cookies are snacks you typically crave, this study might help you put them down. Researchers in the United Kingdom calculated the nutritional savings of switching one unhealthy snack a day–“crisps, chocolate bars, cakes or pastries”–to a healthy snack–fresh fruit, dried fruit, unsalted nuts and seeds. The savings: 4.4 grams of saturated fat and 500 milligrams of salt per person, per day. It might seem small, but according to their calculations, this change could prevent 6,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease in the United Kingdom each year.4 Not bad for a small switch.
If you really cannot find a healthy food that will satisfy your craving other than a high-calorie treat, it’s okay to indulge, as long as you follow these rules:
1. Take one serving–that’s all. Measure it out with measuring cups or spoons.
2. Put away the rest of the bag or container before you start to eat.
3. Eat your snack from a plate or bowl, sitting down at a table.
With a little planning and a few small changes, you can take control of these snack attacks.
Snacking late at night will lead to weight gain–Myth or Fact?
Many people believe that eating after dinner sends fat deposits directly to their hips, but that’s not technically the case. The time of day that you eat is not as important as how much you are eating. If you plan for a snack after dinner and stay within your calorie budget for the day, go ahead and enjoy that evening snack. The trouble starts when your evening snack puts you beyond your daily energy (calorie) needs. By the time the clock strikes ten or eleven PM, most of us have already eaten all the calories we need for the day. Any additional food eaten at that point adds extra calories, which leads to unwanted weight. Plus, in the evenings, people have a tendency to choose higher-calorie snacks and are less careful about portion sizes. (Think back to those late nights cramming for tests and staying awake with handfuls of junk.) That’s why many people successfully lose weight by setting a rule not to eat after dinner.
The bottom line: Weight gain always comes down to how much–not when–you are eating.
1. Claire A. Zizza, Francis A. Tayie and Mark Lino, “Benefits of Snacking in Older Americans,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 107 (May 2007): 800-806.
2. Brian Wansink, James E. Painter and Yeon-Kyung Lee, “The Office Candy Dish: Proximity’s Influence on Estimated and Actual Consumption,” International Journal of Obesity 30:5 (May 2006): 871-875.
3. Brian Wansink, Ganaël Bascoul and Gary T. Chen, “The Sweet Tooth Hypothesis: How Fruit Consumption Relates to Snack Consumption,” Appetite 47 (July 2006): 107-110.
4. Ffion Lloyd-Williams, Modi Mwatsama, Robin Ireland and Simon Capewell, “Small Changes In Snacking Behavior: The Potential Impact On CVD Mortality,” Public Health Nutrition 12:6 (June 2009): 871-876.
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.