Snack Your Way To Better Health
Nibbling between meals has gotten bad press in recent years. In fact, snacking can be good for you
To snack or not to snack? That is the question ... for doctors, for nutritionists and for you, as you try to decide what to do about your grumbling stomach when it’s nowhere close to mealtime.The short answer: Have the snack.
Snacking has fallen out of favour in certain dieting circles, thanks in part to the popularity of intermittent fasting, in which you severely restrict your food intake on a periodic basis. Some folks interpret the Paleo diet, in which the diet-conscious attempt to imitate the food habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as anti-snacking as well. But many modern-day studies have found that snacking can have positive effects on your health, both physical and mental. Like what? Grab a banana—or a handful of peanuts—and read on!
Can snacking help you drop a few kilos? Yes, but nutritionists’ insight into what works has changed. They once thought that eating more frequently could boost your metabolism—your body would be working more often to burn calories. Alas, studies have been mixed when it comes to proving that theory. But a smart snack can prevent the kind of unhealthy binge eating that comes from hard-core hunger. “Your body is always talking to you—you just have to listen,” says New York-based internal and functional medicine specialist Robert Graham, MD, MPH. “So if you’re starting to feel a little hungry, don’t wait.” He recommends a simple approach: a three-meal plan interspersed with two or three snacks.
But you can’t grab hold of any old snack. Chips, cookies, crackers and other simple carbohydrates boost your blood sugar quickly, which ultimately leads to the sugar crash we’ve all experienced. Instead, try nuts, complex carbs and fruits. “Toasted wholegrain bread with nut or seed butter with sliced tomato or cucumber is a great option and so are fruits such as pears, strawberries and oranges. Sprouted pulses such as moong, moth beans or chana can be made into a chaat by chopping in some tomatoes and onions with a sprinkling of lemon juice, salt and chopped coriander, for a delicious and nutritious mid-meal snack,” says Naini Setalvad, a Mumbai-based obesity, lifestyle and disease consultant.
Graham loves a fibre-rich apple because it’s the perfect snacking size. Pair it with protein-rich nut butter and you’ll feel fuller longer.
Snacking is a way to sneak a variety of nutrients into your diet. Maya Feller, a registered dietician from New York, says you can’t go wrong with a handful of mixed nuts. With polyunsaturated fats, fibre, protein, magnesium and calcium, nuts can help your heart. The Journal of Nutrition reported that eating almonds regularly can improve good HDL cholesterol levels and remove bad cholesterol from the body. Snacking on protein-rich foods helps preserve your muscle mass and stamina. The body can absorb only a finite amount of protein per meal, says Lisa Reed, CEO of Lisa Reed Fitness, citing research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Distributing protein throughout the day via snacking can maximize protein intake. That’s especially beneficial for people over 60. “When seniors don’t get enough protein, they are more at risk for falls and fractures,” she explains.
Divvying up your calories and nutrients into smaller meals may also provide benefits for those worried about type 2 diabetes. A small 2017 study from Greece showed that eating six smaller meals each day not only improved blood sugar levels but also reduced hunger in obese people with prediabetes or diabetes. “In my patients trying to control sugar levels,” says Feller, “if they have a snack that’s well balanced, they’re more likely to have level blood sugar readings, as opposed to the highs and the lows.” Other studies show that blueberries may fight age-related memory decline and may even help ward off Alzheimer’s, while yogurt and cheese can help protect bone health. Smart snacks with multiple health benefits include fresh vegetables with hummus, Greek yogurt with berries, hard-boiled eggs and avocado.
Mood and Mental Health
If you’ve ever snapped at someone when you were hungry, you know that food—or lack thereof—can influence your mood. But when you’re ‘hangry,’ it’s not just because your blood sugar has dropped. A study in the journal Emotion revealed that hunger has the ability to make unpleasant things seem even worse. Snacking helps you avoid that precarious position, resulting in fewer mood swings and better focus. This can have a positive ripple effect on your day and your food choices.
Some studies have shown that healthy snacking may also improve memory and cognitive performance and help alleviate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, says Ashwini Nadkarni, MD, an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. If you wait too long to eat between meals, your body thinks it’s starving and releases the stress hormone cortisol to correct your glucose levels. “Cortisol will cause the release of inflammatory substances such as cytokines and leukotrienes, which can produce symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Nadkarni explains. Again, snacking helps you sidestep this trap.
Fasting and meal-skipping, along with dehydration, are also migraine triggers. As Graham explains, “When the brain is starved of both sugar and water, it will talk in the form of a headache.” His prescription? In addition to drinking water, snacking on fresh fruit, with its natural sugars, can help. A small study published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience also found that snacking at night, rather than earlier in the day, reduces the odds of having a headache the next day by 40 per cent.
A Word of Caution
Except in the case of preventing migraines, researchers generally advise skipping that midnight snack. People are more likely to make bad food choices late at night, which can contribute to weight gain. And studies show that night-time snacks increase problems with blood sugar regulation, inflammation, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and cognitive ability.
“For a quick fix, most people munch on high glycaemic index foods such as biscuits, chips and chocolate that are high in white sugar and white flour. These foods lead to fluctuation in blood sugar. The high and lows, in the long run, can lead to delayed recall. Sugar is the main cause of inflammation as well as elevated lipids,” explains Setalvad. If you must have a snack at night, try cottage cheese. A 2018 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating 30 grams of it 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime can fill you up without making you gain weight. It can also improve your metabolism, muscle quality and overall health.
The Bottom Line
There are different ways to go about this whole snacking thing. The one constant is to choose a healthy, filling option in an appropriate portion size. Do that, and the benefits don’t stop at weight loss and improved health; your general approach to life might be affected. When you snack mindfully, says Nadkarni, “it’s easier to take a deep breath, focus on exactly what you’re eating at that moment and enjoy the day around you too.”
—with inputs by Mohini Mehrotra