Most of us tend to grab a snack every now and then, but do you ever stop to think about the snack you eat? Johanna Hignett looks at the impact snacking makes to our overall nutrient intake, why we snack and some tips on how we can choose healthier snacks
Most of us think of snacks as ‘something, usually smaller than a meal, that is eaten between, or outside of, regular meals for any reason’. Our own personal habits and tastes, lifestyle, time of day and age can all influence what we choose to snack on and around 95 per cent of us snack at some point during the day.
Most adults eat 2-3 snacks a day, although young adults (16-24 years old) snack more frequently and older adults less often than this. Our favourite snacks are confectionery, crisps and fruit and although we snack regularly throughout the day, almost a quarter of snacks are eaten between 3pm and 6pm. Most of us reach for a snack ‘to energise’ but there are many other reasons we grab something to eat. Sometimes we snack out of habit, but we also use snacks as an indulgence or to sustain our overall health and wellbeing.
Our favourite snacks are confectionery, crisps and fruit
Snacks and energy
All our food and drink, except for water, gives us energy, measured in calories. Official guidelines advise that adults eat around 2000 calories a day, typically spread over three main meals, drinks and snacks. We’re advised that snacks make up around 20 per cent of our total daily calorie intake – that’s around 400 calories a day for an average female and up to 500 calories a day for an average male.
The calories in a snack will depend on the levels of energy-giving nutrients they contain and the portion size. Fat, carbohydrate and protein all provide energy. At 9 calories a gram, fat provides more than double the energy of carbohydrate and protein. Sugars are a type of carbohydrate, providing 4 calories a gram.
A typical chocolate bar provides around 200 – 250 calories, a bag of crisps around 130 – 210 calories, a banana around 100 calories and a handful of almonds 160 calories.
9 out of 10 of us snack at some point during the day
Snack for health
Snacking’s not just about calories. Some snacks can be a great way to boost your intake of valuable nutrients or help increase your intake of fruit and vegetables.
Studies have shown that snacks high in protein, fibre and wholegrains help fill us up. However, choosing the wrong type of snack may contribute considerable calories with inadequate amounts of other nutrients, which may lead to weight gain. This is particularly true when we’re not hungry but doing something else and eating without thinking such as when we’re watching television.
Overall dietary recommendations advise us to limit our intake of fat, particularly saturated fat, limit sugars and increase our intake of fibre, and these guidelines apply to snacks too. No one food will magically provide all the nutrients we need so we should eat a variety of foods to help nourish our bodies with a variety of nutrients. That’s where snacks can help.
Most of us probably underestimate the importance of fibre in our snacks. The British Nutrition Foundation designed a diet that met the nutrition targets recommended by the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to limit free sugars to 5 per cent of energy and increase fibre to 30g per day. This concluded that meals need to be based around starchy foods, particularly wholegrain versions, as well as including plenty of fruit and vegetables (around 8 portions a day) and fibre-rich snacks such as nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
CONSIDER PORTION SIZE
With such a huge array of snacks available today, many in larger ‘sharing’ size portions, it can be easy to overeat. It’s a simple piece of maths, a small portion of a snack can give an energy boost and other valuable nutrients too, but a larger portion could provide similar calories to a meal and provide much of your daily fat or sugar allowance too.
Have a look at how the nutrients and energy in a chocolate bar vary depending on the portion size you choose:
Great snack choices
Here are some ideas for simple snacks to fill a gap
• Fresh fruit and/or vegetables – whole or chopped
• Nuts and dried fruit – opt for those without added sugar or salt
• Cereal bars – look for wholegrain cereals
• Scones and teacakes – choose wholemeal if available
• Savoury snacks – look for small bags of baked or popped crisps
• Confectionery – buy a small sized bar or one you can share with a friend!
• Cakes and biscuits – choose smaller portions for an occasional treat
Almost a quarter of snacks are eaten between 3pm and 6pm
Stop, think, decide
It’s easy to eat snacks and barely remember what you’ve chosen. Does habit drive your choice? Do you usually buy a muffin with your coffee in a coffee shop, or always have a biscuit with a cup of tea in the afternoon? Each time you reach for a snack take your time and decide whether you’re really hungry or doing it just because ‘you usually do’.
We all deserve a treat sometimes. Perhaps your favourite is a few squares of chocolate or a piece of cake or a bag of crisps, but I suspect for many of us the phrase ‘choosing an occasional treat’ occurs more often than we think! Even when you’re enjoying a treat, thinking about portion size can help make sure you don’t overdo it.
Snacks high in protein, fibre and wholegrains help fill us up and are a healthier option
All too often you find you’re peckish when the only snacks available are higher in fat, sugar or salt. These days it’s getting easier to make a good choice of snack in a coffee shop, corner shop or supermarket, but a bit of planning ahead can help. Pack a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, or a cereal bar in your bag for work so you’re in control and not likely to be tempted by something else.
When choosing snacks, follow four simple tips to set you off on a healthy track:
• Look for snacks high in fibre and choose those full of cereals, fruit and vegetables.
• Limit snacks with added sugars such as cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolate to occasional treats.
• Choose snacks with a lower fat content such as low or reduced fat foods.
• Opt for smaller portion sizes.
Johanna Hignett, Nutrition Consultant (RNutr), is a highly experienced nutritionist with over 20 years’ experience working primarily as a nutritionist in the food industry, as Head of Nutrition Science and Communication for Nestle UK before setting up Nourish Consulting over ten years ago.
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