How much of a snacker are you? My guess is that you might be snacking more than you think.
It varies from person to person, of course, but estimates suggest that, on average, around 20 pc of our total calories comes from snacks.
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, I believe snacking often gets an unjustifiably bad press.
People think it encourages weight gain or bad habits, and while mindless grazing on the wrong things absolutely can do this, ‘smart snacking’ can be beneficial, particularly when it comes to weight and blood sugar management.
In fact, not letting kids snack appears to have a negative effect. New research from Imperial College London has found that denying children snacks is linked with an increased risk of them becoming overweight.
How much of a snacker are you? My guess is that you might be snacking more than you think. It varies from person to person, of course, but estimates suggest that, on average, around 20 pc of our total calories comes from snacks
It gets back to the idea that if you want youngsters to really want something, tell them they can’t have it. I know a lot of adults — myself included — who feel the same way!
The urge to snack stems from many things: sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes plain old hunger. For me, snacking on popcorn at the cinema is bound up in nostalgia about my childhood.
When it comes to hunger, there is this idea that being hungry is some sort of virtue, but it can encourage you to have a blow-out at the next meal.
I know if I have back-to-back work meetings and don’t get a chance to grab something to keep me going, then I eat more than normal at my next meal.
I’m hardly unique in this. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that having a 30g serving of walnuts as a snack significantly reduced the total calorie, saturated fat, sugar and salt intake at the subsequent meal.
But the choice of snack is key. When the researchers gave the study volunteers sugary, gummy snacks, they didn’t have the same calorie reduction at the next meal.
People think it encourages weight gain or bad habits, and while mindless grazing on the wrong things absolutely can do this, ‘smart snacking’ can be beneficial, particularly when it comes to weight and blood sugar management
Having smaller meals interspersed with healthy snacks may be especially beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, as this approach can avoid the larger spikes in blood sugar that may occur with a big meal.
Researchers at the University of Athens found that for people with type 2 or pre-diabetes, having six snack-size meals rather than three bigger meals (but adding up to the same amount of food in all) led to lower blood sugar levels across the day and lower HbA1C levels (this is a measure of your average blood sugar levels over the previous two to three months. This approach also reduced their feelings of hunger in between meals, according to the study results, published in 2018 in the journal Diabetes & Metabolism.
In my view, another perk of snacking is that it offers the chance to broaden the range of nutrients you’re taking in for your gut microbes to feast on.
Did you know?
Red apples with an uneven colour or imperfections will contain more polyphenols — antioxidant compounds that lower your risk of disease.
The uneven markings mean the fruit has been exposed to more difficult growing conditions. The plant responds to this stress by producing protective polyphenols.
Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2006 found that snackers had higher intakes of several key nutrients — including our gut microbes’ favourite, fibre — compared with non-snackers.
Sadly, the choice of snacks is where most people go wrong. A YouGov poll of 2,000 people earlier this year found 58 per cent identify themselves as snackers — and their top choice is chocolate. Now I’m all for enjoying a few squares of chocolate from time to time — it’s a known mood booster.
But the truth is that while chocolate while it may provide a mild surge in energy, this is most likely followed by a sudden crash. What’s more, your gut microbes don’t get any return on this, unless the chocolate is 70 per cent or more cocoa solids.
The best approach is to view snacking as a chance to fill in the missing gaps in your diet. A smart snack includes fibre, protein and some healthy fats. This winning combination will help you feel fuller for longer and reduce spikes in blood sugar levels that result from higher carbohydrate foods, such as fruit when eaten alone.
My favourites include salty popcorn (a source of fibre and healthy fat); wholegrain crackers with hummus (see recipe) and tomato (providing fibre, fat and protein); a piece of fruit with natural yoghurt or a small handful of nuts (fibre, fat and protein).
And if you’re a snacker like me, then it’s worth remembering to swish your mouth out with water afterwards, particularly if you’re having fruit or any sweet snack as you don’t want to give those cavity-causing bacteria in your mouth a snack, too.
There are, it has to be said, some who don’t benefit from snacking. If you’re someone who finds that snacking makes you more hungry, or if you only have access to less healthful foods during the day (yes, office biscuits, that means you), then give snacking a miss.
People who suffer with constipation may want to follow that advice, too. They’re best advised to stick to three meals a day because of what we call the migrating motor complex.
These are the movements that help propel undigested food along the gut. This process only kicks in once you have had 90 minutes without eating anything.
So if you are snacking, you are more likely to delay these contractions which, if you’re struggling with frequency, are the very thing that can help kick your bowel movements into gear.
If this applies to you, then try a month without snacking to see if that makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then bring those high-fibre snacks back in.
So, yes, snacking can be good — but if you’re one of those who thinks that the little and often approach to eating will push up their metabolism, I have bad news.
It’s true that when you eat, your metabolic rate jumps a little — it’s called the thermic effect of food (TEF) — because you have to burn calories to digest and absorb nutrients from your food.
TEF makes up around ten per cent of your total calorie expenditure. Some people take this to mean that snacking can help you lose weight by keeping your metabolism humming. But the TEF relates to the overall amount of food you eat, not the frequency.
So if you eat 1,600 calories a day in three meals or the same number of calories in three meals and three snacks, it will have the same thermic effect and make very little difference to your metabolic rate.
So be a savvy snacker in the knowledge that you are bumping up your nutrient quota, not your metabolic rate.
Try this: My Humble Hummus
Butter’s prebiotic sibling, hummus, provides nourishment for you and your gut microbes. I use dips as spreads, dressings and fillings. They can transform a boring bowl of veg, and they make a great snack with veggie sticks or seeded crackers.
- 400g tinned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed
- 1 tbsp tahini (or unsalted peanut butter)
- 60ml extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ tsp cumin
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- A pinch of salt
- A big twist of black pepper
- Pine nuts, toasted (optional topper)
Blitz the ingredients with 60ml water until completely smooth (approximately 2 minutes). Taste as you go — you may like to add more lemon or salt.
Having had a kidney stone two years ago, I’m now very wary of what I eat, and of oxalates (I never knew they existed!), which seems to restrict all the good bacteria things I should eat to protect my gut. Do you have any guidance on gut-friendly or kidney stone-friendly foods? My stones were calcium oxalate ones.
The good news is that a gut-nourishing diet can also lower your risk of kidney stones!
One of the most important preventative steps is to drink plenty of fluid (2.5 to 3 litres per day). The increased urination can also help any tiny stones pass before they grow. The other recommendations are to reduce your daily salt intake (70 per cent comes from processed foods) to no more than 5g (less than a teaspoon), and animal meats to no more than 90g twice a day. Both pieces of advice are part of a gut-nourishing diet.
Oxalate is a compound found in many plant foods. But even if you’ve had calcium oxalate stones, there’s generally no need to completely avoid oxalate-rich foods, such as spinach and strawberries (unless your healthcare team has advised otherwise).
The latest advice is to eat these foods with a source of calcium, as this helps lower the amount of oxalate your body absorbs. This means foods such as yoghurt, cheese, tofu (check the label says it contains calcium sulphate) and canned fish with bones. It’s also best to get your vitamin C from whole fruit, as over 1,000 mg of vitamin C supplements can raise your risk of kidney stones.
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