So, you want to learn MORE about healthy (or “healthful”) snacking? (For the grammar buffs, healthful snacks make healthy people). I’ve already given you lots of great healthy snack ideas, but just what is it that makes a particular snack choice “healthy” or at least “healthier than” other snack choices? A lot of this is unique to each of us as an individual and varies depending on time of day, previous and anticipated energy expenditures and type of exercise, etc., etc. But without writing a dissertation (although you might want to pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee because there is a lot of great reading ahead), here are some general guidelines and principles that can help you to plan, pick and prepare better-for-you snacks, even in a pinch!
*As always, I am NOT a nutritionist or a dietitian. I encourage you to consult with your trusted health professional on any dietary advice or strategies that are unique to YOU as an individual, especially if you are dealing with food allergies or intolerances.
I am here to share my experiences as a competitive athlete and as a “Mom-lete,” balancing workouts, a full-time job and motherhood. I have had the benefit of working with countless coaches, therapists and trainers and learning from their combined education, experience and insight. I hope to share some of that information with you. This will be “food for thought” AND food for…well…FOOD!
The Science of Healthy Snacking
We’ll deal with two main topics or approaches (and you’ll see how they overlap). The first topic may be familiar to you: the four main food groups (yes, I realize some of you have learned five food groups, with fruits categorized separately from vegetables). For my purposes, I am considering:
- Grains and cereals (bread, rice, oats, quinoa, millet, spelt, etc.)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Dairy (animal-sourced milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, etc.)
- Meat and alternatives (beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, seafood, eggs, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, etc.)
You may not have even realized it, but all of the healthy snack suggestions I provided included foods from AT LEAST 2, but usually 3 or more of the food groups (of course commercially-prepared bars, baked goods and things like sandwiches don’t count as “1” because these already combine foods from various food groups).
Here is our first “healthy snacking guideline”: make sure your snacks combine AT LEAST 2 (ideally 3 or 4) of the four main food groups.
Now, can we take it a little bit further and discuss which food groups pair best with which other food groups? Absolutely! Now it’s time to start talking about macronutrients. What are those? You may have heard of them as part of the “fad” or “trend” of “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)” or “Flexible Dieting.” This post won’t go into detail on those strategies (Muscle & Fitness does a good job breaking down IIFYM here). Macro (which means “large”) has to do with the basic components of food at the molecular level: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Without going into an in-depth lecture on organic chemistry, here are some generalities:
- Proteins are the so-called “building blocks” that help to repair and restore muscle tissue. In general, the more stress you put on your muscles through weight-lifting and other resistance activities, the more your body needs protein and their building blocks, amino acids, to repair damaged muscle tissue and to build new muscle tissue. One gram of dietary protein provides roughly 4 calories of energy to your body. Protein generally does not digest as quickly as carbohydrates but more quickly than fats.
- Fats, despite their bad rap, are also essential to an overall balanced diet. Another form of storing energy, fats also assist in cell functioning and line our internal organs. Fats help in the transport of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) essential to overall physiological functioning including the proper functioning of our nervous system to send and receive all messages to and from the brain. If you grew up in the same era that I did (late 70’s through to early 90’s) you might have gotten the misguided (but well-intentioned) message that dietary fat was bad. It’s not – it is required in the appropriate quantities to fulfill a vital role in our overall health! One gram of dietary fat provides roughly 9 calories of energy to your body (another good reason why you don’t need as many grams of fat as you do of protein, since each gram provides more than twice the calories!). Fat generally digests more slowly than either proteins or carbohydrates, and pairing it with these other macronutrients can slow the rate of their digestion, as well.
- Carbohydrates are generally regarded as the main source of “quick” energy to fuel our day-to-day activities. Whether “complex” carbohydrates (starches) or “simple” carbohydrates (sugars), they ultimately break down to a form of sugar that is absorbed into the body’s blood stream to provide immediate energy to the cells in a process called glycolysis (certain body-builders, those with Celiac disease and others on extremely low-carbohydrates may get their energy from an alternative metabolic process called ketosis). If you’re well-versed in these latter subjects then you probably don’t need my advice anyway! One gram of carbohydrates provides roughly 4 calories of energy to your body. Carbohydrates are the quickest to digest of the macronutrients. Their release in the form of sugar into the blood stream triggers the body’s insulin response, meaning that the body will start to produce insulin in the pancreas to lower blood sugar levels (this is the process that does NOT work properly for individuals diagnosed with diabetes). This quick rise and fall in blood sugar levels can actually cause you to feel MORE hungry than before, which is why it can be so easy to overeat high-carbohydrate snacks. Many “fat-free” snacks and other foods marketed in the heyday of the fat-free movement made up for missing taste with added sugars and other forms of carbohydrates, intensifying this effect. Without dietary fat to slow the rate of digestion and provide a signal of satiety, people ended up eating even more calories than before and their waistlines showed it, despite consuming less overall dietary fat. Can I get a holla’ from anyone who has been on THAT train before (MY hand is up!).
The “best” snacks combine all three of these macronutrients in a balanced way. At a minimum, the best options combine proteins and carbohydrates OR proteins and fats. The “least desirable” pairing is carbohydrates and fats but this is generally still better than carbohydrates alone in most instances. These pairings release energy in a controlled way, avoiding spikes in blood sugar and insulin, support tissue regeneration and new muscle growth and maximize fat-oxidation (fat burning, which promotes an overall leaner body composition). These are pretty popular health and fitness goals for performance and aesthetics, but if your goals differ (i.e. you want to INCREASE body fat – I envy you!), you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
Here is our second “healthy snacking guideline”: make sure your snacks combine AT LEAST 2 (ideally all 3) of the major macronutrients.
If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet (or even if they have), it’s time to go back to our friendly food groups. NOW I’m going to do some sub-dividing and split the “Dairy” category into “High-fat Dairy” and “Low-fat Dairy” and I’m going to split the “Meat and Alternatives” category into “Lean Meat” and “Fatty Meat” and “Nuts and Seeds” and “Beans and Legumes” for the alternatives. So now I have EIGHT food groups (I’ll bet you wish I had stuck with four!). To get back to the macronutrient pairings above, I’m going to split these eight food groups into the macronutrient that is most prevalent in them (some options are a “grey area” for example well-marbled cuts of steak feature both a lot of fat AND a lot of protein).
Low-fat Dairy (whey protein, skim milk, low-fat/fat-free cheeses and plain yogurts, etc.)
Lean Meat (lean cuts of steak, turkey, chicken, lean cuts of pork, white fish, shrimp, etc.)
Egg whites* (egg whites are such a superstar I’ve included them separately!)
High-fat Dairy (whole milk, cream, butter, full-fat cheeses)
Fatty Meat (marbled steak, bacon, fatty cuts of pork, salmon, certain shell-fish)
Nuts and seeds (including nut butters, nut milks, nut flours and peanut butter)
Avocado* (technically a fruit, avocados provide most of their calories in the form of fat)
Coconut* (coconut meat, coconut oil, coconut butter, coconut cream and coconut milk)
Whole eggs / egg yolks*
Grains and cereals
Fruits and vegetables
Beans and legumes (despite being considered alternative sources of protein vs. meat, these provide more of their calories in the form of carbohydrates)
So, there is your combination Food Group/Macronutrient Guide. Remember, we are picking at least 2 food groups and they should come from at least 2 of the major macronutrient categories, with special emphasis on proteins and fats and proteins and carbohydrates.
Our third “healthy snacking guideline” (combining one and two): make sure your snacks combine at least 2 of the food groups from at least 2 different macronutrient categories.
And our fourth (and final) “healthy snacking guideline”: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. HONOUR YOUR CRAVINGS.
This may seem to fly in the face of all of the detailed information I have just given you. I could have saved myself a lot of typing (and you a lot of reading) if I had just said this in the first place. I have given you some food for thought, for sure, and hopefully a helpful framework to follow when you have the time and energy to carefully plan, prepare and pack your snacks. With enough practice, you might even be able to call these guidelines to mind when you are caught, snack-less, in a very hungry moment in the convenience or grocery store. But none of this is going to matter a whit if you don’t truly feel satisfied and nourished by your snacking choices in the long run. So use this information as a guide and allow it to ease you into trusting what your body truly wants and needs. It will tell you what it needs to be at optimal health and wellness, if only we can learn to really, really listen.