Whether we like it or not, for most of us, snacks are an inevitable part of our diet. And for many of us, they aren’t the healthiest part of it, either – all too often, the lure of a quick sugar hit in the midst of a busy day, when that wholesome lunch or dinner is just too many hours away, is too hard for us to resist.
Most store-bought ‘snack’ foods are loaded with sugar and empty carbohydrates, designed to provide a quick burst of energy with little in the way of long-term nourishment. So what other options do we have?
First, why do we need to snack?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, according to many dietary philosophies. And there is certainly truth to that. A nourishing, healthy breakfast sets the scene for what we eat for the rest of the day. If we consume a high-carbohydrate, high-glycaemic index meal for breakfast, such as the majority of cereals available on the market, toast, or other grain-based meals, we’ll experience an immediate burst of energy that will last perhaps an hour, after which our blood glucose levels will crash and leave us feeling hungry, cranky and lethargic again. This usually leads to people reaching for something quick and easy to eat to feel satiated and give more energy to help us through to lunchtime – and then, if lunch is along the same lines, with little in the way of fat or protein, we have a repeat of the same cycle later that afternoon.
For this reason, the best breakfast is one rich in protein and good fat, to help us feel fuller for longer and release energy more slowly (avoiding the blood sugar spikes you feel with low-nutrient carbohydrate-rich foods). While low-fat foods have for years been touted as healthy, the reality is our body needs fat, and they’re what make us feel full.
Thus, the best snacks are also ones that are high in protein, nutrients and healthy fats.
Healthy options for fast snacks
One of the first things to do when trying to change your diet is to examine what it is you’re actually eating. Write out everything you consume for a week, and then do a tally of how many protein or fat-rich meals you eat, how many fruit and vegetables you eat, and what it is you snack on each day. Look at the patterns and figure out where you need to make changes. For many people, particularly those who work long hours, snacks are one of the biggest things we eat and are often lowest in nutrition.
If you find you’re often missing out on vital protein, you could consider snacking on nuts or seeds. Soak these first overnight, and then take them to work in a container, ready to eat throughout the day. Soaking in water deactivates the phytate content – a chemical that prevents them from sprouting in sub-optimal conditions, but also stops the release of their nutrients and can block uptake of minerals. There are also many commercially-available ‘snack balls’ made from nuts and seeds with dried fruit, cacao and other delicious treats that are a fantastic, healthy alternative to chocolate bars and commercial muesli bars, which are often high in sugar and low in nutrition.
Many companies are now producing nutrient-dense snacks in a bar format, similar to the muesli bars most of us grew up with, but higher in nutrition and utilizing ingredients such as chia seeds, activated nuts, and dried fruit without the sugar, preservatives and other additives that detract from their overall health value.
If you have a sweet tooth you just can’t kick, look for fresh fruit and berries to give a quick hit of sweetness in the afternoon – dried blueberries, apricots and other fruit, while higher in sugar than fresh, can be a better option than sweets. If you want to up your vegetable intake, try taking along raw vegetables to eat, or look for bags of kale crisps to replace normal potato chips during the day. Yoghurt drops can be a fun swap for sweets, or if you really must have a chocolate hit, look for raw or organic chocolate bars with high cacao content.