The Good Life Part 05: What is a snack, why do we snack, should we snack?
Public Health England’s recent advertising Change4Life might imply that snacking is a dangerous thing to do [i]. But those campaigns are aimed at children. Despite what many pundits will tell you, there is nothing wrong with snacking. In fact, the woman of a certain age needs a few moments in the day when she can relax, kick off her heels and re-fuel the batteries.
My own snack-times are typically elevenses, mid-afternoon and before bed. Yours may be different. My grandmother was an early riser and always had a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit first thing in the morning, before walking the dog and well before breakfast. If you are a commuter, there’s nothing wrong with drinking a latte on the train out, or tea and a healthy snack as you unwind from the day’s toil.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that nuts, chopped carrots, hummus, or a piece of fruit all constitute a wholesome snack. If you follow the regimen that I’ve recommend in The Good Life series, then on average you will be eating about 500 calories (or five dot portions) of balanced nutrition at breakfast, lunch and dinner. For an average woman (remember you might not be average) you will have 500 calories, or five portions, left-over to enjoy as snacks. If you’ve been able to plan healthy main meals then one or two of those five portions can be from that tantalising category – the rest. A snack doesn’t need to be quite so righteous. A small portion of a high energy food, such as the Florentine pictured above, is fine – as long as you keep that portion to about 100 calories. It is the quantity and quality of the snack that should be uppermost in your mind. Take care that high calorie or low nutrient snacks, such as a digestive biscuit, or a chunk of chocolate, should be kept to below 150 calories. That means one biscuit, not four or five! That means cutting a piece of cake in half or even quarters – save the rest for tomorrow.
Why should women snack?
There is quite a bit of evidence to show that adults – both men and women – should take snacks. As s we age, the science says that we women can improve our health outcomes and help to maintain a healthy weight, by choosing slow release carbohydrate or protein snacks. For example, studies consistently show that ‘feasters’ – those who eat only one or two meals each day – have far higher blood cholesterol [ii] and triglyceride [iii] levels as well as higher blood pressure compared to ‘nibblers’ – those who eat little and often . Those studies don’t show many differences between people who eat three formal meals and three snacks and people who don’t eat three square meals, but simply graze all day long.
The picture is slightly different if you look at studies about weight control. Three regular meals and three to five (healthy) snacks seems to be the best option for weight maintenance. The type of snacks we choose seems to be important too. In a 2015 study of 10,000 adults in England, overweight people consumed just as many healthy snacks as their normal weight neighbours, but they also consumed significantly more snacks of crisps, cakes and biscuits, ice-creams and sweets. In other words, overweight people eat more food and more of that food is highly calorific .
Snacking and age
After the menopause a woman’s metabolism becomes a bit more sluggish and she will find it increasingly difficult to self-regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels. Snacks between meals (before we start to feel ravenously hungry) can help to maintain energy levels and even out blood glucose. This in turn should reduce the temptation to reach for a sugary snack or a packet of crisps. A slice of wholemeal bread and jam is fine. Just steer clear of the super sugary/super fatty snacks.
The very best way to stave off hunger pangs is to ensure that each meal, and snacks between meals, contain an element of slow-release carbohydrates, such as milk, wholemeal bread or wholegrain snacks like oatcakes. In addition, protein has been shown to keep us feeling full for longer. So, snacks such as wholemeal wheat bread, nuts, seeds or dairy all work well. Sugary snacks satisfy in the short term, but as soon as the sugar rush is over, we feel hungry again.
What is a snack?
We all eat between meals, some of us nibble away at something all day. A snack is simply a small amount of food or beverage taken between your three main meals of the day. A snack doesn’t mean a ham and cheese croissant (˞360 calories in Costa), a strawberry milkshake ( ˞500 calories in McDonalds) or a pecan and caramel cookie (˞390 calories at Pret) These are not snacks, they contain almost as many calories as a main meal, they contain far too much free sugar, poor quality fats and overall they are low on nutrients. You are not being kind to yourself if you regularly eat these types of foods.
If you find yourself in a café – try to think more simply;
- Slice of wholemeal toast
- Glass of cold milk or a latte
- Small plain (preferably wholemeal) scone
- An oat biscuit with 25g cheese
- One hard-boiled egg
- Add a low calorie drink
Tea, black coffee or water are all excellent snacks, as well as hydrating. Be very cautious of cans, bottles or bubbles. The drink may not contain calories, but it’s artificial contents may shock you and the cost alarm you.
Why do we snack?
We don’t always snack because we are hungry. We might be bored, or we simply need a break.
- Don’t ignore tiredness – it’s a trigger for hunger pangs. It is really good to have a few minutes away from your desk or chores, every so often. And if you work at a computer, it is essential to rest the eyes every hour or so. Get up and move about a bit, or sit somewhere quiet and put your feet up. If you can, a 20 minute snooze will restore flagging energy levels.
- Don’t ignore thirst – dehydration can feel very similar to hypoglycaemia (lack of energy due to low blood glucose). A cup of tea, coffee or a glass of water should provide adequate rehydration.
- Don’t ignore feeling cold – a hot drink or a slice of toast will warm the hands as well as the heart. But a break can also mean a brisk walk to get the circulation moving again.
- Don’t ignore the need to comfort eat – think of some non-fattening treats such as tending the garden, sitting in a deckchair, reading a magazine, listening to music or phoning a friend.
- Don’t ignore mood – don’t beat yourself up with poor food. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, rejected or deprived then you need good food to build resilience. I’m a great believer in getting to the root cause of any discontentment and then acting to make changes. Give yourself time to think and your brain the correct fuel to find your way around life’s challenges. That means a balanced diet – 24/7. Don’t take risks with your health. Be kind to yourself.
The snack prescription is thus:
3-5 healthy snacks each day – no one snack exceeding 100 – 150 calories
You can decide to tailor your snack routine to top-up on particular micro-nutrients.
- Osteoporosis affects many post-menopausal women. Calcium and Vitamin D are essential to maintaining bone strength.
- Frailty is caused by muscle wasting. Even into old age muscles can be re-structured by increasing protein intake combined with exercise. (Vitamin D might help too.)
- Hormones naturally reduce after menopause. Food can’t replace natural hormones, but certain nutrients can help us make do. Iodine will improve thyroid function and soy will provide plant-based oestrogens called phytoestrogens.
Other studies have recommended Omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, magnesium, selenium, zinc, B vitamins as well as vitamin C and E as important for older people . Finally, the phytochemicals found in fruit and vegetables, spices, herbs, coco, tea, coffee and red wine offer further nutritional enrichment. The table below makes a few suggestions for suitable snacks aimed at specific health issues. However, don’t go overboard with the same snack, day after day. Healthy eating is about a balanced and varied diet.
Healthy Mince Pies
Many of our old favourites can be made into very nutritious snacks simply by tweaking the recipe. Home-made mince pies are delicious. This recipe uses wholemeal flour and reduces the richness of the filling by mixing it with a chopped Bramley apple. Icing sugar tastes a little sweeter than using castor sugar in the pastry.
115 calories per mince-pie. 1.3g fibre.
Ingredients for 12:
- 120g plain wholemeal flour
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 75g butter
- 30g icing sugar
- 90g mince-meat
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 medium Bramley apple
Mix the flour and cinnamon, rub in the butter until it looks like breadcrumbs, then mix in 30g icing sugar. Add a little water and form into a soft dough. Place in the fridge to cool for half an hour.
Meanwhile prepare a 12-case non-stick mini tart tray by rubbing each recess with a little butter.
Core the apple, do not peel. Chop into small chunks and mix with the ready-made mince-meat.
Remove the pastry from the fridge. Place onto a lightly floured surface and roll the pastry out thinly and gently. Use a cutter or a suitably sized glass to cut out the bases. Reserve the left-overs.
Place a teaspoonful of the mince-meat mixture into each pie mould. Do not over-fill the pastry cases. The fruit mix will expand in the heat. Roll out the remains of the pastry and cut into 12 equal squares or small circles. If you are feeling creative you can make Christmas tree or holly shaped medallions. Place one pastry medallion on top of each mince pie, leaving mince-meat showing on each side. Brush the edge of the pastry cup and the medallion with a little beaten egg yolk.
Bake in a hot oven (180˚C, fan 160˚C, gas 4) for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.
Leave to cool slightly before lifting from the tray and placing onto a warm wire rack. Once cooled, each pie can be decorated with a sprinkle of sifted icing sugar. If you use the holly medallion you can decorate each pie with a couple of fresh cranberries.
If you’ve enjoyed this article please leave a comment. You can read the rest of the series here:
20 December – Commensality (celebrations, parties and eating with friends)
27 December – The New You
 O’Connor, L., Brage, S., Griffin, S. J., Wareham, N. J. & Forouhi, N. G. The cross-sectional association between snacking behaviour and measures of adiposity: The Fenland Study, UK. Br. J. Nutr. 114, 1286–1293 (2015).