Healthy snacking is an important part of the diet whether you consider yourself an athlete or not. Many people considering snacking to be an unhealthy habit when in actuality snacking helps manage weight, ensures adequate fuel for the muscles and brain, and it improves muscle recovery. Most people should consume 3 meals and 2-4 snacks/day. The number and type of snack is dictated by hunger, work schedule, athletic involvement, weight goals, and sleep.
To become a good snacker one must implement three strategies 1) recognize your hunger cues, 2) distinguish a snack from a treat, and 3) select nutrient rich-snacks.
It seems obvious; when you are hungry you should eat, but this isn’t always the case. Some people eat when they are not hungry and some people are poor at identifying their hunger. Most people only identify hunger as stomach pangs, but after stomach pangs have been sensed, too many hours have passed without feeding the body. Hunger cues can include fatigue, poor concentration, headaches, lightheadedness, irritability, shakiness, and sleep disturbances. These symptoms are usually felt before the stomach pangs and should be acted upon immediately to prevent more intense hunger and additional energy loss. Being able to detect your body’s hunger cues is important, as this will stabilize energy and metabolism throughout the day leading to better physical and mental performance. What are your hunger cues?
The ability to distinguish a healthy snack from a treat will allow for proper fueling of the body. Healthy snacks are nutrient-rich and provide whole grains, fiber, lean proteins and/or healthy fats. On the other hand, treats such as candy, chips, and fried foods, are “empty” calories. Snacks provide fuel and satisfy hunger while treats usually only satisfy a craving.
Selecting a snack is not always easy, but once you identify your level of hunger you will be able to choose more wisely. When you begin to feel hungry, rate it on a scale of 1-5 (1 = satisfied and 5 = starving). Your hunger level will help guide you in choosing a light, moderate or heavy snack. A light snack would include fresh fruit, raisins, dry cereal, low-fat Greek yogurt, low-fat pudding. A moderate snack would include fruit with peanut butter, oatmeal, cereal and milk, yogurt parfait. A heavy snack would include a peanut butter or lean protein sandwich, cheese and crackers, omelet.
Smart Snacking Tips:
- Plan ahead: Spend a few minutes in the evening planning/packing snacks for the next day.
- Establish a routine: Consuming regular meals and snacks helps prevent feeling overhungry, achieve weight goals, and allow proper energy for exercise.
- Identify snacks versus treats: Healthy snacks are nutrient dense and satisfy hunger.
- Keep snacks readily available: Place snacks in your gym bag, purse, or desk drawer at work for quick fuel when you need it.
Breakfast: English muffin with PB & J, fruit, yogurt and/or low-fat milk
Snack: Fresh fruit and/or low-fat string cheese
Lunch: Turkey sandwich on wheat, vegetables and hummus, pretzels, low-fat milk
Snack: Greek yogurt with fruit
Dinner: Grilled chicken, rice, vegetable, low-fat milk
* Note – If you exercise prior to breakfast, you should have a snack before the workout such as fruit and/or granola bar. If you exercise twice or more per day, including a snack after dinner, such as PB & banana on wheat bread with low-fat chocolate milk, is beneficial.
Healthy snacking is an important part of a fueling plan. Listen to your body and keep nutrient-rich foods readily available. When you are eating well, your body will react positively and you will be able to achieve your physical, mental and weight goals.
More information can be found in 100 Questions and Answers About Sports Nutrition and Exercise by Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC.
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