Science-Backed Snacking Hacks That Won't Sabotage Your Diet. Which Will You Try Tomorrow?

Science-Backed Snacking Hacks That Won't Sabotage Your Diet. Which Will You Try Tomorrow?

Snacking has become the fourth meal for many Americans. Over the past few decades, the frequency of snacking and the number of calories consumed from snacks has risen dramatically. While some experts view this snacking trend with concern, fearing it contributes to weight gain and poor nutrition, others believe that snacking can be an important part of a healthy diet when done right.

The truth is, snacking isn't inherently good or bad for you - it's all about what you snack on, why you're snacking, how often you snack, and how snacks fit into your overall eating plan. With a bit of strategy and mindfulness, snacking can provide energy boosts, curb hunger to prevent overeating at meals, and even boost your nutrient intake. But mindless snacking on nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods can absolutely sabotage your diet.

So how can you snack smartly? Keep reading for science-backed snacking hacks that will keep you satisfied without derailing your health and weight goals.


Why Do We Snack?

Understanding the motivations behind our snacking habits is key to taking control of them. According to research from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, some of the major reasons people snack include[1][2]:

  • Hunger: The most obvious reason is that our stomachs start growling a few hours after our last meal.
  • Energy dips: A small snack can provide a boost when energy levels start to lag.
  • Cravings: We snack to satisfy desires for sweet, salty, or savory flavors and textures.
  • Social/cultural reasons: Snacking is woven into many cultures and social situations.
  • Distracted/mindless eating: We snack out of habit or boredom rather than true hunger.
  • Emotion regulation: Some turn to snacks to cope with feelings like stress, anger, or sadness.
  • Food insecurity: For some, snacking is driven by a lack of reliable access to full meals.

While hunger and energy needs are perfectly legitimate reasons to snack, many of the others on this list can lead to overconsumption of calories and nutrient-poor snacks.


The Pros and Cons of Snacking

Snacking isn't universally good or bad - it can benefit your diet, or it can detract from it. It all depends on your snacking behavior. Here's a quick look at some potential pros and cons[3]:

Potential Benefits:

  • 👍 Boosts energy between meals by providing a hit of nutrients when blood sugar drops
  • 👍 Curbs appetite to prevent overeating at the next meal
  • 👍 Provides extra nutrients if you choose nutrient-dense snacks like fruits, veggies, or nuts
  • 👍 Maintains nutrition for those with poor appetites who struggle to eat full meals

Potential Pitfalls:

  • 👎 Excess calories and weight gain if you overdo portion sizes or frequency
  • 👎 Skipping meals because you're not hungry after excessive snacking
  • 👎 Poor nutrition from regularly choosing ultra-processed, nutrient-poor snack foods
  • 👎 Developed food preferences for hyper-palatable salty, sweet, and fatty snack foods

As you can see, the quality of your snacks and your level of consciousness about snacking behaviors is what separates a healthy, enhancing habit from one that undermines your diet.


Power Snacking: A 4-Step Plan

If quality snacks are chosen mindfully and fit into an overall balanced diet, snacking can be a beneficial habit. To snack in a way that enhances your diet rather than sabotaging it, try this 4-step "Power Snacking" plan[1]:

1. WHEN: Identify Your Snacking Windows

The first step is to reflect on when during a typical day you tend to feel hungry between meals or find yourself reaching for snacks out of habit, boredom, etc.

For many people, mid-morning and late afternoon are prime snacking times as hunger strikes a few hours after breakfast and lunch. But everyone's schedule and hunger patterns are a bit different.

2. WHY: Distinguish Hunger From Other Motivations

Once you've pinpointed when snacking tends to occur, spend some time noticing whether you're truly experiencing physiological hunger signals (rumbling stomach, low energy, inability to concentrate) or if other motivations like boredom, stress, or cravings are driving the snacking urge.

If it's true hunger, move on to planning a snack. But if you realize you're being triggered by emotions, boredom, or habits, try deploying mindfulness strategies like taking a few deep breaths, going for a short walk, or distracting yourself with an activity before automatically reaching for a snack.

3. WHAT: Choose Highly Satiating, Nutrient-Dense Snacks

This is where snacking can get tricky. We've all experienced getting derailed by vending machine snacks or tasty treats brought into the office. To avoid giving in to those hunger-amplifying, utrient-poor snack choices, have a plan for satiating, nutritious snacks.

Research shows that the most filling snacks are those that provide protein, fiber, and a bit of healthy fat and complex carbs[1][4]. This nutrient combination promotes a steady rise and gradual decline in blood sugar rather than a spike and crash. It also supplies longer-lasting fuel to the body.

Good examples include:

  • Protein from Greek yogurt, cheese, nuts, nut butters, roasted chickpeas, or edamame
  • Fiber from fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • Healthy fats from nuts, nut butters, avocados, eggs, fatty fish, olives, etc.
  • Complex carbs from whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds

Some highly satiating and nutritious snack ideas:

  • Apple or banana with peanut or almond butter
  • Greek yogurt with berries and a sprinkle of nuts or seeds
  • Hummus with veggie sticks or whole-grain crackers
  • Trail mix made with nuts, seeds, whole grain cereal, and dried fruit
  • Brown rice cake with avocado, tomato, and a sprinkle of feta
  • Hard-boiled eggs with fresh fruit
  • Oatmeal with milk/yogurt, fruit, cinnamon, and nuts


Also, be mindful of your cravings and what will truly satisfy you. If you really want something creamy, an apple may not cut it. If you're craving crunch, a yogurt parfait won't scratch that itch. At the same time, don't use this as an excuse to default to nutrient-poor snack foods - get creative in finding nutrient-dense options that deliver on flavors and textures.

4. HOW MUCH: Control Portions

Finally, watch your portions to keep snacks in their proper place - supporting meals rather than replacing them. A good general rule of thumb is to aim for 150-250 calories per snack. This is roughly the amount in:

  • 1 medium apple with 1-2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup berries and 1 oz nuts
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn with 1 oz nuts or seeds
  • 1 oz cheese with 6 whole grain crackers
  • 1/2 avocado with cherry tomatoes and a slice of whole-grain toast

If you're eating packaged snacks, be sure to check the nutrition label and measure out just one serving rather than mindlessly eating from the container. It's shockingly easy to overeat calorie-dense snacks like nuts, chips, or crackers.

With a bit of planning and self-awareness, snacks can be a delicious and healthy part of your diet rather than its downfall. Give these "Power Snacking" steps a try and see how much more energized and satisfied you feel!


Beating Nighttime Snacking Demons

For many people, willpower wanes in the evenings after a long day at work, leading to excessive snacking while bingeing TV shows or working late at night. Distracted eating in front of screens makes it very easy to ignore fullness cues and overconsume calorie-dense snacks.

Frequent nighttime snacking (7 times/week) was significantly associated with an increased risk of obesity (OR 3.10, 95% CI 1.63, 5.89; P for trend<0.001) in a Chinese teacher cohort[6].

To overcome nighttime snacking tendencies[5]:

  • Have a plan for nutritious snacks like air-popped popcorn, fresh fruit and yogurt, veggie sticks and hummus, or trail mix ready to go in the evenings.
  • Limit distractions by avoiding screens and eating at a table instead.
  • Stay hydrated as thirst can masquerade as hunger.
  • Brush your teeth after dinner as a signal that eating is done for the day.
  • Go to bed earlier if you tend to snack more when you're overtired.

Beat Boredom Snacking

One of the trickiest snacking triggers to overcome is boredom or habit. Your body doesn't necessarily need those calories, but your mind gets restless and snacking provides a brief distraction or engages your senses.

Try these boredom-snacking mitigators:

  • Identify boredom cues like aimless roaming to the kitchen. Interrupt that pattern!
  • Stay hydrated as sometimes thirst is misinterpreted as hunger.
  • Chew gum or sip tea to keep your mouth engaged between meals.
  • Do an activity like calling a friend, working on a hobby, or getting outside.
  • Eat crunchy snacks like carrots, nuts, or popcorn slowly and mindfully.

The Power of Protein

Prioritizing protein at snack times is a great way to promote fullness and steady energy levels. Protein-packed snacks tend to be extremely satiating compared to sugary fare.

Some excellent protein-rich snack options:

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Edamame
  • Cottage cheese with fruit
  • Hummus and veggies
  • Jerky
  • Tuna or salmon pouches
  • Protein smoothies

Protein isn't just filling - it also helps build and maintain metabolism-revving lean muscle mass. So snacking on protein supports your fitness goals too!


Sensible Sweet Snacking

While nutritious whole-food snacks should be prioritized, there's also room for the occasional sweet snack treat worked into a balanced diet. Just be sure to stick to reasonable portion sizes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting daily sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy consumption. However, many sweet snacks exceed this threshold, contributing to the global obesity epidemic[7].

Some better options for sweet snack cravings:

  • Fresh fruit with yogurt or cottage cheese
  • Dark chocolate (1-2 oz max)
  • Small portions of baked goods like muffins or cookies made with healthy swaps
  • Snack bars with minimal added sugars
  • Smoothies blended with fruit and greens
  • Energy balls made with dates, nuts, seeds, and nut butter

The key is to be intentional about including these treats as an exception rather than a daily habit. And pay attention to portion sizes!

Healthy snacks boost nutrients, energy, weight management, cognition, and overall health.

Which Snacking Hack Will You Try Tomorrow?

Snacking can be a helpful dietary habit or an unhealthy one - the difference comes down to your awareness of snacking behaviors and the quality of snacks you choose.

So which science-backed snacking strategy will you implement starting tomorrow?

  • Identifying your prime snacking windows and anticipating them?
  • Distinguishing true hunger from other snacking motivators?
  • Planning highly satiating, nutrient-dense snacks?
  • Controlling portion sizes to prevent over-snacking?
  • Being more mindful about nighttime and boredom snacking?
  • Prioritizing protein for satisfying snacks?
  • Working in the occasional sweet treat in moderation?

With some simple adjustments like these, snacking can absolutely be part of a healthy, balanced diet that supports your wellness goals rather than sabotaging them. So grab an apple with nut butter, yogurt with berries and seeds, or some crunchy veggies and hummus, and start snacking smarter!


References:

[1] “The Science of Snacking.” The Nutrition Source, 18 Feb. 2021, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/snacking/..

[2] Boyce, Hunter, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The Science behind Why We Snack, and How to Do It Better.” Medicalxpress.com, Medical Xpress, 27 Feb. 2024, medicalxpress.com/news/2024-02-science-snack.html.

[3] “The Pros and Cons of Snacks (Rutgers NJAES).” Rutgers.edu, 2024, njaes.rutgers.edu/sshw/message/message.php?p=Health&m=1511.

[4] Valentine Yanchou Njike, et al. “Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight.” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 7, no. 5, Elsevier BV, Sept. 2016, pp. 866–78, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.115.009340.

[5] Liu, Xiao-yang et al. “Nighttime snacking is associated with risk of obesity and hyperglycemia in adults: a cross-sectional survey from Chinese adult teachers.” Journal of biomedical research, vol. 31,6 541–547. 20 Jun. 2017, doi:10.7555/JBR.31.20160083

[6] Liu, Xiao-yang et al. “Nighttime snacking is associated with risk of obesity and hyperglycemia in adults: a cross-sectional survey from Chinese adult teachers.” Journal of biomedical research, vol. 31,6 541–547. 20 Jun. 2017, doi:10.7555/JBR.31.20160083

[7] World. “WHO Calls on Countries to Reduce Sugars Intake among Adults and Children.” Who.int, World Health Organization: WHO, 4 Mar. 2015, www.who.int/news/item/04-03-2015-who-calls-on-countries-to-reduce-sugars-intake-among-adul ts-and-children.

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