There’s a right way—and a wrong way—to snack

Scott Semler for WSJ, Stying by Maggie Dimarco
Scott Semler for WSJ, Stying by Maggie Dimarco

Summary

Science-backed strategies for taming the inner snack monster.

America is a nation of snackers. A lot of us are doing it wrong.

Noshing outside of traditional mealtimes isn’t inherently bad. A snack can stave off hunger, boost energy, provide important nutrients and keep us from overeating later. But snacking can also lead us to eat extra calories and overdo it on sodium, added sugars and saturated fats, which can raise our risk of heart disease and obesity.

How to snack better? Reach for food combinations that keep you fuller longer: Pair carbs like apple slices with protein and fats, like peanut butter. Or try yogurt with berries. Then plan your snack times, and watch out for the minefield that is evening snacking.

People are snacking more now than they did in decades past. Americans got 23% of their daily calories from snacks in 2017-March 2020, up from 12% in 1977-78, according to national survey data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Almost half of American adults now report having two or three snacks a day. And 30% report having four or more. In 1977-78, almost three-quarters of adults said they had one snack or none at all.

Busy lives, with long workdays, long commutes and kids’ packed extracurricular schedules are driving the rise in snacking, nutrition researchers say. So is a food industry that keeps making tasty, cheap and convenient new products, said Lindsey Smith Taillie, associate professor in the nutrition department at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“You go to Staples. You go to Home Depot. You’re checking out. Why are there gummy bears?" said Christina A. Roberto, director of the Psychology of Eating and Consumer Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Here’s the science-backed way to snack:

Plan your snack time

When we have a daily snack at about the same time, we are more likely to adjust the rest of our intake to offset the snack calories, says Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University in Indiana.

With unplanned snacks, we tend to just add the calories to our daily total. If you have cake at the office for a co-worker’s birthday, you’ll probably still eat the lunch you brought and the dinner you planned, Mattes says. Splurging is fine once in a while, but frequent randomly timed snacks can make us consume excess calories that can lead to weight gain, he says.

Most people need to eat every three to five hours during the day to keep energy levels up and hunger at bay, said Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian in Troy, Mich., and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Choose a combo of carbs with protein or fat

A lot of foods that we typically think of as snacks—bags of chips, cookies or candy bars—are high in sodium, added sugars and saturated fats. They are often ultra-processed and act on the brain in a way that makes it hard to stop eating them. And many are quickly metabolized, causing quick spikes—and then crashes—of blood sugar that soon leave us hungry, says Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, a registered dietitian in the Boston area and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Fruit is a healthy snack, containing vitamins and fiber, but Anderson-Haynes notes that eating, say, only an apple will likely leave you hungry an hour later. Instead, add protein and fat to the carbs, she says, by eating the fruit with a handful of nuts. That combination can keep you full for two to three hours.

Other good combo snacks: hummus with carrots or cucumber sticks, guacamole with a few tortilla chips and plain yogurt with berries, Anderson-Haynes suggests.

Broaden your thinking about what constitutes a snack, advises Elizabeth Gollub, assistant professor in the school of nutrition and food sciences at Louisiana State University. Half of a PB&J or chicken sandwich is a good snack. So is cheese with some whole-grain bread, she says. A few bites of leftovers from a previous dinner can be, too.

Look closely at the labels of granola bars and protein bars that are often marketed as healthy snacks, said Smith Taillie. Many contain a lot of added sugar. Choose bars with a short list of ingredients and that mainly consist of nuts and fruit, she said.

Aim for a snack with between 100 and 200 calories, says Derocha. That can stave off hunger until your next meal. If you’re snacking to fuel a work out, you can go up to 300 to 400 calories, Derocha says.

Try a drink of water first

People often think they’re hungry when they are actually thirsty, Derocha says.

So before you reach for a snack, try drinking some water first and see if that satisfies you.

People can get into trouble with sugary beverages though, says Mattes.

Sugar-sweetened drinks can add a lot of calories before you feel full, he notes.

Beware nighttime snacking

At night, people tend to choose unhealthier snacks, like sweets, research has found. And people tend to eat while they are distracted, by watching TV or scrolling on their phone, which can lead to overeating.

“It’s relaxed time. It’s downtime. It’s let me sit around and just enjoy myself and not worry if something is healthy or not healthy," says Gollub, who is the co-author of a review of studies on snacking among U.S. adults that was published in the journal Nutrients last year.

For most people, it’s best not to snack after dinner at all, says Smith Taillie.

If you do snack at night, decide what to eat ahead of time, said Roberto, a healthy one or a small portion of something more indulgent, for example, “so you’re not tempted by anything else in the moment," she said.

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