Eating a simple snack every 2 to 3 hours is the cornerstone of my diet. Snacking regularly keeps my energy high, my blood sugars stable and has been fundamental in my being able to obtain and maintain a lean frame that is optimal for my chosen extracurricular activity (running like a crazy person). Snacking regularly also prevents me from binging on nutrient deficient junk, which has been known to occasionally happen during periods of high stress or heavy workload. Beyond the nutritional benefits, one of my favorite reasons for hitting the fridge every couple of hours is that snacking gives me an excuse to step away from whatever task I may be working at the moment and helps me to stay fresh and fight burnout.
When considering what constitutes a healthy snack, we need to make a couple of considerations before we start planning. A good snack, or small meal, needs to be nutritious, balanced (containing all 3 macronutrients: carbs, protein and fat) and contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals from whole food sources. It’s almost impossible to eat outside of these guidelines if we snack on any combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, but to reinforce the idea that these simple items need to be snack staples, lets take a quick look at their beneficial properties.
- Fruits & Vegetables contain a significant amount of bioactive phytochemicals, which help fight oxidative stress and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Oxidative stress is received from our food, air and water and can have adverse effects on a number of biological processes that are critical to our bodies functioning at a high level. (See antioxidants v. free radicals here) Their bounty of vitamins and minerals is vast and too great to catalogue, but here is a cool list on fruity vitamins and here is a detailed listing of veggie goodness. Fruits and vegetables also provide a quick, easily digestible source of sugar that can re-energize to help get you through those final emails before the days end.
- Whole grains are unrefined and consist of all the edible parts including the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole grains are packed with nutrient including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants and other trace minerals like zinc, iron, copper and magnesium. Whole, unrefined grains are the ideal source of complex carbs, which are better able to control sugar and insulin levels in the blood better then their “refined” counterparts. This controlled reaction allows whole grains to provide the body with a steady stream of energy and prevents the surge and subsequent crash of simple carbs that can contribute to obesity and increase the risk of developing diabetes. Oh and did I mention that whole grains are carbs?! My favorite comfort food.
- Nuts provide us with dietary fat that is a major source of energy and aids in vitamin absorption. The fat in nuts is very satiating (that full feeling) and, because of their micronutrient profile, is a significant dietary addition to all around good health. The EFAs and unsaturated fats help lower cholesterol and contribute to heart health while fiber promotes bowel regularity. Also, recent study suggests that snacking on nuts is a great tool in any weight loss strategy (reference Nutty Weight Loss here).
Ideally we would like to combine a little bit of all three of these groups to our mini-meals to ensure balance and prevent any side effects that may occur from consuming too much of one macronutrient in relation to another. However, if you don’t happen to work from home or for an international organic grocery whose headquarters happen to be located just above their flagship store, this could prove difficult, as resources may be limited while at the office or on the road. Therefore, be mindful by planning snacks into your day to ensure that we provide our bodies with a constant supply of nutrition to power us through whatever obstacle we face next. When working at home (or during my foray in cubicle land) where a fridge is at my disposal, my go-to’s snacks are:
- PB&J. Who doesn’t love the nostalgic goodness of a hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I probably don’t need to mention that we need to make sure that our peanut butter doesn’t have any added hydrogenated oils or preservatives and that our jelly needs to be all natural with no added sugar. If you want to take this snack to the next level, substitute almond for the peanut butter and replace the jelly with banana slices.
- Black beans, brown rice and avocado. Avocado being a great alternative to nuts for dietary fat. I like to pack a small Tupperware that holds roughly ½ cup of both beans and rice with a ¼ of an avocado sliced on top.
- Green smoothies. Let your imagination run wild here. Play around with different combinations of leafy greens, seeds and fruits to see what works best for you. One of my favorites is kale, green grapes, ginger root, hemp seed and coconut water. Fruit smoothies are also great as long as we make sure that we throw more in than just fruit to balance out all the natural sugars.
- Whole grain cereal and berries. Most whole grain, “healthy” cereals these days have a pretty balanced nutrient profile and throwing a handful of berries on top is just a way to boost the antioxidant content. As long as we steer clear of sugar-laden, junk cereals, this is pretty fail safe. Don’t forget the non-dairy milk of your preference (I’m partial to almond).
- Finally, sliced fruits and vegetables are invaluable to a whole foods, plant based diet and are very worthy additions to any snacking plan. This is fairly obvious and the only recommendation I have here is that if, at all possible, try to eat seasonal produce that is grown locally. I found this resource to be the easiest to read and fairly comprehensive.
While all these are fairly simple to prepare, I find that the planning part of the whole deal is a little bit more difficult. I am routinely asking myself how long will I be away, where can I get a snack or what do I need to eat prep now in order to prevent the unsightly effects of a cake binge? Once I developed the habit of packing snacks, it has become an almost forgone conclusion no matter the destination.
While planning and preparation is all well and good, life happens and unplanned meetings or last minute emergencies are an unavoidable consequence of today’s fast-paced lifestyle. While these are an inevitability and to be expected, the myriad of abysmal food choices that generally accompany such events can wreak havoc on our health and wellness. Whether it’s an early morning meeting and the requisite donuts, a family emergency where the only source of food is a metal box, or an impromptu happy hour where everything on the menu, including the pickles, is fried, making it to the next meal in one piece can be a challenge. To prevent the unplanned splurge and the resulting guilt and/or gut grumble, having a few quick options at your disposal will be of extremely helpful in getting through life’s difficult situations. That being said, quick and easy is key. Snacks must be efficient in size, portable and have a little bit of durability to avoid turning on us (a.k.a. spoilage). Here are a few of my favorites:
- Apples. Safe and pretty durable, all apples require is a quick rinse and your ready to go.
- Bananas. Nature’s prepackaged treat.
- Mixed nuts. Unsalted is probably the best route.
- Bars. I’m partial to Kind, Lara bar, Macrobar and any of the incredibly tasty Vega energy or whole food bars.
These are just a few of my favorites and I encourage you to try a few things out and find what works best for you.
When done properly, snacking ensures that we provide a constant nutrient stream to our body and is crucial to maintaining high energy levels, promoting weight loss and encouraging good health through diet. Consuming small, nutrient dense snacks also prevents us from overindulging in less than ideal foods when time and options are limited. All we need to remember is that our snacking should consist of whole, nutrient dense, plant foods that contain all the primary macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) with a wealth of vitamins and minerals. Simply put, lets all snack on fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.