We've always been told that snacking, when done correctly, is a healthy eating habit to incorporate into our everyday routines. Snacking can help us to maintain a steady weight, improve overall nutrient quality, eat the recommended daily food groups and reduce overall junk food consumption across the day.
However, the benefits of snacking depend on the frequency of snacking, the types of foods snacked on and the amounts being consumed. So how much is too much? How much is too often? And – importantly – when does snacking instead turn into grazing?
Unfortunately, the difference between the two is becoming blurred and the frequency of snacking, especially later in the day, has increased across all age groups, according to Jean Hailes dietitian Stephanie Pirotta.
"There are many reasons for this change, but some may include minimal meal preparation time, increasing work schedules, lack of meal preparation knowledge, skipping meals [especially breakfast], or stress-induced emotional eating, just to name a few," says Ms Pirotta.
In her research into adults' eating patterns, Deakin University's Dr Rebecca Leech found women who 'graze' throughout the day are more likely to gain weight than women who eat at traditional meal times. Yet we've been told that snacking is good for us and part of a healthy diet – so what do we do?
The difference between snacking and grazing
Firstly, let's define the difference between grazing and snacking. There is no 'official' definition, but excessive snacking is, in fact, grazing.
What is grazing?
Grazing commonly includes "frequent eating of an undefined portion of food, during undefined periods in the day", with short intervals between each 'graze', says Ms Pirotta.
"Studies have found that people more likely to graze include males, people who are overweight or obese, are of a white background and have higher income levels," she says.
Grazing often involves – but is not limited to – the consumption of high-energy, nutrient-poor foods. Over time, this contributes to excessive daily energy intake and weight gain, which in turn can lead to the development of chronic disease. Grazing can take place at any time of day; however, poor health outcomes are more likely to be linked to later eating habits, especially after 8pm.
What is snacking?
Unlike grazing, traditional snacking is planned and isolated in nature. It is designed as a small meal in between the day's main meals, to keep you ticking over and to prevent overeating. It is recommended that snacks are consumed about two hours before or after a main meal.
"Being a planned behaviour, snacks are therefore less likely to be in response to stress, boredom or excessive hunger," says Ms Pirotta.
Dietary guidelines for snacking recommend nutrient-dense, low-energy foods and smaller portion sizes. Research shows that snacks from the core food groups – grains, meat or meat alternatives, fruit, vegetables, dairy or dairy alternatives – when eaten between regular, wholesome main meals (depending on your needs and exercise levels) promote a feeling of fullness and reduce the chance of you eating junk food, or overeating later in the day.
This results in a balanced daily energy intake, helping to support a healthy weight and overall wellbeing.
So what can you do each day to reduce the chance of snacking turning into grazing?
How to reduce grazing
Ms Pirotta recommends these tips to 'snack right' and avoid 'graze days':
- Don't skip breakfast
- If grazing is an issue, eat every two hours, whether it is a snack or main meal. Try not to eat in shorter time intervals, as this is more like 'grazing'
- 'Sometimes' foods, or 'junk' foods can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet, but not as a main element, especially if you are often sedentary. You're also more likely to enjoy them when you only eat them 'sometimes'
- Aim to do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week
- Listen to your body and know when to stop eating. Your energy needs can differ every day, and depend on several things, such as what you ate the day before and your physical activity levels. So, remind yourself that you don't have to finish all the food in front of you
- Try to eat larger meals earlier in the day and lighter meals later, so your body has time to digest and use the energy across the day, rather than go to bed with a full stomach
- Practise mindful eating – are you really hungry or are you bored/stressed, or actually thirsty? What other things can you do other than snack?
- Limit eating after dinner. If you're still hungry, have a protein-based snack – eg, nuts, carrot sticks and hummus – or a hard-boiled egg.
The best types of snacks
Ms Pirotta recommends snacks that provide a protein base with some carbohydrates and healthy fats. Protein makes you feel fuller for longer as it's digested at a slower rate than carbohydrates. Fat is also digested at a slower rate, but provides the highest energy content, says Ms Pirotta, "so you need to be careful".
Protein sources throughout the day also help to break up overall protein intake, helping repair the body, especially after an exercise session (for both cardio and resistance-training).
Ms Pirotta's recommended snacks include:
- Raw nuts (30g = 1 serve; about a handful)
- Legumes (eg, chickpeas)
- 120g natural yoghurt
- Yoghurt-based dips
- Vegetable sticks
- Wholegrain crackers with reduced fat cheese
- 1-2 slices of cured meats (eg, smoked salmon).
Changing your behaviour may seem daunting at first, but the best way to start is to set small achievable goals, says Ms Pirotta.
"Over time, these small goals will make a big change in the right direction. Even if you don't meet your goal one day, don't worry! We're all human, and it's human and healthy to indulge sometimes," she says.
"The key is not to indulge too much too often, and enjoy regular physical activity. But for individualised nutrition advice and professional health behaviour counselling based on your lifestyle, preferences and physical activity levels, it is best to see a dietitian."
3 THINGS TO KNOW
- Grazing commonly includes frequent eating of an undefined portion of food, during undefined periods of the day, with short intervals between each 'graze'.
- Snacking is a healthier option. It's planned and isolated in nature and designed to be a small meal between main meals.
- Snacks from core food groups – grains, meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy – help to reduce overeating later in the day.
To learn more about healthy eating plans, click here.
This article was originally published in Volume 2, 2018 of the Jean Hailes Magazine.