Combat the Snack Attack
An active lifestyle and healthy eating go hand in hand, but combating the dreaded “snack attack” can be an ongoing challenge for many reasons. When first changing your diet to focus more on whole foods like fruits and veggies or to cut down on sugar, cravings can be intense due to withdrawal symptoms, especially if the change is sudden! Balancing your intake of protein, fats and healthy carbs in meals can be key to preventing cravings during the day. Although snacks are often considered a guilty pleasure, some careful planning and good choices can make snacking an important component of a balanced diet, especially when you are active. Even if you are working towards weight loss, indulging in a satisfying and healthy snack when you feel hungry can help balance blood sugar and prevent binging.
Ironically, the first step to choosing healthy snacks is to avoid almost all packaged “snack” foods. The majority of these products are low in nutrients and high in salt and sugar, which are the last things your body needs when you are hungry. Knowing what to choose can be easy if you know what to look for. There are three major nutrients that help us out when we are hungry: protein, fiber and healthy fats. Snacks containing one or more of these ingredients take longer to digest, balancing blood sugar and keeping us full longer, which can prevent overeating when it comes to snacking.
Let’s take a closer look at some common snacks you might notice yourself reaching for.
Cookies, muffins, baked goods, breads
These foods all contain processed flour that is high in simple carbohydrates – chains made of sugar that our body can break down and absorb very easily. The rush of sugar delivered to the system spikes blood sugar levels, which triggers the body to release a hormone called insulin. The sugars are then pushed out of the blood into the tissues, triggering further cravings for carbohydrates and sugar to boost blood sugar back up. Depending on what you eat during the day, you could be experiencing a constant cycle of spikes and crashes in blood sugar that can cause cravings! Another reason you may be craving carbohydrates is for comfort – we can crave sugar when our mood is low because it is thought to play a role in boosting serotonin, a mood-lifting hormone found in our gut and brain.
Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, are harder for the body to break down and can help prevent the blood sugar spike and crash that leave us with cravings. The difference between whole grains and processed flour is that the refining process of flour strips away the grain’s outer husk, which contains almost all of its nutrients and fiber. It is the fiber content of whole grains with the husk intact that will slow down digestion of sugars and prevent the spike and crash cycle.
- Hummus and veggies – a cinch to make at home and a tasty source of complex carbohydrates from chickpeas with an extra boost of fiber from veggies. Cut up celery, carrots or even mushrooms so they are ready to go for a quick snack!
- Air popped, stove popped or low salt popcorn is a healthy whole grain snack packed with fiber and antioxidants. Try flavoring with a drizzle of olive oil and a spice like dill or paprika.
- Fruit – although does contain natural sugars, reaching for a pear or apple is a good choice thanks to added nutrients and fiber.
Ice cream, chips, fats
Cravings for fats could be due to several causes, and an elevated level of a stress hormone called cortisol is one of them. Cortisol prepares the body for “fight or flight” by increasing blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate in response to any perceived threat. It can also increase appetite and cause cravings for fat, salt and sugar to provide us with energy. A diet rich in healthy fats and complex carbohydrates can help lower cortisol levels and decrease cravings for these foods. Another reason for craving these foods may be a low intake of fats in the diet. While it is a good idea to limit your intake of saturated fats, unsaturated omega fats have an important role in hormone production and balancing inflammation.
Choose healthy sources of fats found in foods that provide other nutrients. Nuts like almonds, walnuts or pecans are a great source of protein and healthy fats, and will help to give you the energy you need. Nuts are best eaten raw and unsalted (or lightly salted) because exposing nuts to heat can damage their healthy fats. A creamy serving of plain greek yoghurt with berries is also a good choice, just 2/3 cup of greek yoghurt can provide over 10g of protein! A 2% option will quiet your fat cravings and leave you feeling satisfied from a punch of protein.
Alternative Healthy Snack Options
Keeping up your intake of nutrients and protein is important for muscle building and energy levels. Try some of these snacks to satisfy your cravings and nutritional needs.
- Hard Boiled Egg – A perfect source of protein, low in calories and high in important nutrients like vitamin E and several B vitamins. If you are worried about a sulfur smell, only boil the eggs for 11-12 minutes and run under cold water immediately after. Make a small batch and keep in the fridge for 3-4 days!
- Almonds with dark chocolate chips – a healthy alternative if you are craving chocolate. Portion control is key!
- Smoothie popsicles – a good option compared to a sugary popsicle or ice cream! Make a smoothie with protein powder, fruit, a banana and your other favorite ingredients and freeze in a fun mold!
- ½ avocado with whole grain crackers – Using a fork, mash avocado with some cumin, paprika and a pinch of salt. Enjoy with 5-6 whole grain crackers.
Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc