We love to snack, and while we think we’re pretty good at, it never hurts to get a second opinion. To get the scoop on just how to get the most between meals (and what to look out for), we spoke with our resident nutrition guru and product developer Mitch Thisius, RD. As the mastermind behind several of the healthy snacks and meals on our website, Mitch spends many days in the test kitchen tasting and perfecting healthy recipes that also deliver on nutrition. Hey, it’s a tough job…wink.
Q: What is a snack?
MT: First, it’s helpful to define a meal. Most Americans eat three meals, or larger servings of food a day. A meal should contain a balance of macronutrients, which are the nutrients we get calories from in food. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. For example, for the typical American, a meal will consist of meat, a starch and a vegetable. Ideally, a snack is just a smaller version of this. You don’t want to get your calories all from one source such as all from carbohydrates, or just a huge chunk of protein. You want to have a balance because your body needs a blend of these nutrients throughout the day. This is going to help you stay satisfied longer. A snack is usually something that’s going to tide you over for 1-3 hours. Once you’re consuming more than 500 calories, that’s more meal territory because that could sustain you for several hours.
Q: Is it o.k. to snack?
MT:The rules are definitely loosening between meals and snacks. Some people only snack – that is they eat small meals throughout the day and no big meals. Some people eat two big meals and snacks. It’s really individual. Snacking is a great way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs to run optimally. In this sense, snacking is essential for health. Unfortunately, some people think of snacks as a “break” or time for indulgence and choose less-than-ideal snacks that are often excessively high in salt and sugar.
Healthy snacking can actually help you not overeat during meals. If you’re starving by the time lunch hits, your chances of overeating are greater. A good weight loss technique that I suggest is to eat something light like a piece of fruit an hour before a meal. This will help curb hunger hormones, and when you do sit down to eat, you’re more likely to stop when you’re actually full.
Q: Are there negatives associated with snacking?
MT: There are. This is usually based on two things: what we’re snacking on and why we’re snacking. Studies show that when you snack on junk food this can actually make you more hungry and intensify cravings for unhealthy foods. I advise people to avoid foods with “empty calories,” which are calories that don’t deliver nutrients like vitamins, minerals, healthy fats or fiber. When you’re eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables, that’s a good way to avoid “empty calories.” If you’re buying packaged foods, take a look at the nutrition panel. If a food doesn’t offer any essential nutrients, you know it’s not what your body needs. Having a craving once in awhile is totally natural, and it’s fine to satisfy that craving. The key is being able to satisfy your hunger as well.
The other problem is snacking for the wrong reasons. It’s easy to overeat when you’re bored, anxious or stressed. Eating can have a calming effect. But even if you’re snacking on the right things, eating too much of these foods is not good.
Overeating spikes blood sugar, which over time leads to weight gain, insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes and heart disease. You want to fuel your body but you don’t want to over fuel it. If you’re snacking only when you’re hungry and eating foods to help you curb that hunger, that’s totally healthy and there aren’t many negatives.
Q: When should you snack?
MT: That’s really customized for each person depending on their lifestyle and activity level. In general, a good time to snack is when you’re hungry.
Personally, I don’t typically eat a big breakfast because it makes me a little nauseous to eat too much early in the morning. I eat just a small amount with my coffee, to get my metabolism going. Then, when I get hungry, I’ll have a mid-morning snack to tide me over until lunch.
Q: What do you look for in a snack?
MT: You want your snacks to include at least two of the macronutrients. Protein is often the one that gets overlooked because it’s harder to get in snack form. I suggest nuts and seeds, which can provide a lot of healthy protein and healthy fats. Just as important as getting a balance of nutrients is trying to eat real foods. If you’re eating real food that’s minimally processed, you’re getting more fiber, which helps you stay satiated, as well as the vitamins and minerals.
Q: What do you snack on?
MT: I’m a habitual snacker. I have lots of favorite snacks. Obviously, I love all the products we make at Made In Nature. We use only organic, whole-food ingredients, and everything we make is really convenient. It really doesn’t get better than that.
Some other favorites are yogurt and cottage cheese mixed with fresh or dried fruits, nuts or granola. I like mixing nut butters with vegetables and fruit. Since I was a kid, one of my all-time favorites has been ants on a log. You just smear peanut butter on celery and sprinkle with raisins. It’s got the crunch, (which is an important element for many snackers), fiber, protein and healthy fats from the peanut butter. Apple with nut butter is also great. Smoothies are another big one for me. I like to take frozen fruit and mix it with yogurt or milk and blend it up. This is such an easy way to get a good serving of fruits and vegetables.