Can snacking ever be healthy?

Can Snacking Ever be Healthy? And a few snacks that just might be Everyone wants to get their eating habits just right, so this week we've looked into the best advice out there when it comes to snacking.

In the second week of our Just One Change campaign, we recommended that people swap their snacks with nuts. The main aim here was less about getting people to stop snacking, and more about wanting you to benefit from the protein, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals that you find in nuts. Obviously you don’t have to eat nuts as snacks - you can have them with your meals - but snacks felt like an easy place for you to change your habits from eating one thing to eating something else.

In our blog post about this, we also briefly touched on whether people should snack between meals. The conclusion we reached at the time was that you shouldn’t worry too much about it, but now we want to go into a bit more detail. Read on and we’ll discuss the different opinions on whether we should be snacking, and talk about some of the healthy snacks our diners seem to really enjoy.

To Snack or Not To Snack?

How we look at snacking gets complicated almost straight away for one main reason - different people have different goals. For many their only real interest is weight loss and what will make that happen the most quickly, but others are more concerned with fitness - what will aid the quickest muscle gain or give them the optimal energy levels for beating their best run time. (There's a great debate on this by Nerd Fitness!)

Then, of course, there’s the health angle. What makes you feel best, what keeps you healthy and well for the longest?

And the truth? There’s not much clear cut information out there - just an awful lot of opinions. What we do know is that these days we’re eating a lot more snacks than we used to.  At the same time, the whole idea of a snack is based on the assumption that we eat three big meals a day and then other bits here and there - but this is really a modern European habit. There are plenty of cultures and periods of history where the norm was to eat one huge meal and graze the rest of the time, or eat several smaller meals throughout the day.

So through the ages and across the world, we’ve had all kinds of eating routines and survived as a species - so is there really an optimal eating routine that will get you to your health goals, whatever they are?

The main arguments for snacking is that they fit with your metabolism. If you eat small amounts between meals you don’t get that slump just before lunch when all you can think about is food, and if you’re doing a lot of exercise, your body can keep building muscle and maintaining your energy levels. The argument against snacking is that it just piles on unnecessary calories between meals, which you don’t need and will inevitably be converted into body fat.

When you get to the heart of these arguments, though, this doesn’t seem to be a debate about snacking - it’s just one about eating too much or too little. If you start to feel weak, fatigued and hungry before your next meal, then yes, you should probably eat something - if you’re exercising a lot that might happen more often. If you don’t feel hungry, you probably don’t need to eat.

This is a big problem with the kind of theories around “optimal” eating habits we find online. To a certain extent we think you just need to listen to your body when it comes to how much you should eat. We can’t say we’d recommend snacking when you don’t feel hungry just because a blog told you to eat little and often. But if you’re getting that gnawing feeling in your stomach and it’s an hour until lunch, it’s perfectly fine to have a quick bite.

If that happens a lot, of course, you might want to see if you’re eating a decent breakfast in the morning - you’re probably more likely to get hunger pangs if you eat white toast and butter than, say, eggs on wholemeal toast or a bowl of porridge, because the whole grains in those second two release energy more slowly. If you’re eating a lot but constantly feeling hungry, there may well be dietary habits that are causing that.

And that’s the heart of it - instead of looking at exactly when to eat, we’d always say it’s better to focus on what you eat and leave it to the elite athletes to come up with the 100% optimised diet schedule.

And with that in mind, I had a chat with our Catering Managers to find out which healthier snacks are most popular with our diners. Maybe you could switch out your daily biscuits with one of these.

Squirrel Sisters energy bars Squirrel Sisters’ vegan bars are made almost exclusively of dried fruit and contain no added sugars. I did a quick dig on their nutrtitional info and one bar of their Cacao Brownie contains around 6.8g of sugar - which will come from the fruit. That’s not bad at all for a treat given that your typical chocolate bar contains more like 20-30g, though of course you should always be mindful of how much sugar you eat through the day - the NHS’s daily total limit is 90g, where only 30g should come from “added sugar”.

Beef jerky Here’s what we’d say with beef jerky - look at the packet when you buy it. We’ve found beef jerky with just a single gram of sugar, but we’ve also found much more heavily sweetened versions with 8g per bag. These are added sugars that have been added for flavour - and are unnecessary! Anyway, if you find an unsweetened version this is a high protein, low fat food. It is very high in salt though, so you might want to adjust how much salt you have in your other meals through the day.

Urban fruits Because we are boring Dads, we have to go ahead and say that dried fruit should be eaten in moderation because it’s very high in sugar. On the plus side, it’s also high in fibre - which means it’s more satisfying than other quick snacks - and contains plenty of essential vitamins and minerals. For example Urban Fruits’ Super Berries contains 9g of fibre, 200% of your daily Vitamin C needs and 9% of your daily iron.

Of course, if you really want a healthy snack, you can’t go wrong with a handful of nuts or an actual whole piece of fresh fruit - but the ones listed above aren’t bad either.

So, do you think you have healthy snack habits? Are you feeling a bit more relaxed about trying to get it “just right”?