This article is shared with permission from our friends at Taliand.
When helping someone improve their daily nutrition, it helps to start with one meal at a time.
With my patients, I first tackle breakfast, the most important meal of the day for glucose control, which has major implications in mood and hormone regulation for the rest of the day.
Once that’s covered, we go after The Afternoon Snack.
You know the one I mean: it’s after lunch. You’re at the office. The clock is moving backwards. Your brain is barely functional.
You’re hungry… or are you? You’re tired. Kind of. Not physically tired, but…huh? What were we talking about just now?
Right, tired. Mentally tired. Brain in fog. Can’t think. Can’t concentrate.
Someone is bringing around a tray of muffins.
There are Halloween candies in your desk—what month is it again? It was from last Halloween, right? Or the one before that?
How long is the Tim Horton’s line?
You think about making it through the last two hours of the work day, consider slogging over to the gym, feel a sinking feeling somewhere in your empty abdomen at the thought of your evening commute.
You wonder what the hey is going to end up on the table for dinner.
Take out, probably.
So, yes; once breakfast is sorted, this is the time of day I go after next.
Generally, I try not to recommend snacking.
Ideally our blood sugar is so on point that we have 3 big meals a day (or 2 for some people, maybe 4 for others), spaced out by about 5 to 6 hours, and then a nice, long nightly fast of about anywhere from 12 to 15 hours, or longer, depending on your body, goals, and so on.
That being said, there are few reasons some of us might need to snack:
- Your blood sugar is off the rails and, while you have the goal of getting into a more stable 2 to 3 meals-a-day kind of routine, you need something to tide you over in the meantime while you heal.
- Your adrenal glands are off the rails and, while you have the goal of sleeping soundly, and getting your cortisol up and moving at the right times (with the right breakfast), you need something to help keep things balanced in the meantime while you heal.
- You’re sorting out your insulin and leptin, or other hormones involved in satiation.
- You have a medication you need to take at this time that must be taken with food.
- Your healing goals involve listening to your hunger signals. You are healing from emotional eating and learning to trust your body, which means that your meal times might not be predictable.
- You don’t have time for a big lunch, or your lunchtime is too early for you to be hungry enough to eat a big meal (teacher’s often have this problem).
- Your schedule fluctuates.
- You’re swamped with the kind of work where all you can do is shove something portable into your mouth during an 8-hour shift or else you’ll pass out.
- You have a hard workout right after work.
- Your digestion doesn’t allow you to eat 2 to 3 big meals a day.
- You’ve tried eating 2 to 3 big meals a day and, even though your hormones are seriously sorted, you find it just doesn’t work for you and your body.
- You have dinner late: your partner gets home late and you want to share a meal with him/her, or you take a hip-hop cardio, abstract drawing, or throat singing class at night, and then try to get some food into you afterwards.
- You snack at night and are working on healing that pattern by trying to eat more during the day. Snacking helps with this.
- You are on insulin or drugs for diabetes and need to eat whenever your blood sugar drops.
- And so on.
When patients ask me what they should have for snacks, I enthusiastically exclaim, “a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds!”
My enthusiasm is rarely returned, even after I excitedly spell out the health benefits.
Sometimes, I think, people just want to be told which carrot muffin is the healthiest or which birthday-cake flavoured protein bar I recommend. However, while snacks can certainly be fun, I look at food primarily as fuel, especially if we’re going to heal our mood, stress signals, and hormones.
If your snack goals involve looking for an excuse to eat chocolate fudge snack protein bars with 1 g of sugar per serving (oh, just have an actual chocolate bar and get on with it!), then snacking might not be right for you.
Snacking is not:
- An excuse for emotional eating: “Ugh, the boss is a jerk—time for a scone!”
- A response to riding the blood sugar rollercoaster: if you need a snack to stay stable we have some deeper healing to get into.
- A response to not setting up good sugar control (i.e.: not liking breakfast, not feeling like eating what you brought for lunch, not feeling full from your protein-sparse lunch, etc. See above).
- A reward for getting through the work day. “It’s 2 o’clock… I guess I can head over to the muffin tray now—I’ve earned it!”
- An excuse for a break. If you’re not hungry, take a walk instead.
- An excuse to eat something “not awesome” for you, unless it’s a once-in-a-while treat you’re really savoring.
So, that being said, what makes a good snack?
The anatomy of a good snack is as follows:
- It consists of about 100-400 calories, depending on your goals for the snack (Workout fuel or brain fuel? How long does this snack need to last you? What is your body doing with the energy?), your energy requirements, your health goals, your health status. Most people’s snacks are around 250 calories.
- Snacks should contain protein to keep blood sugar steady (aim for about 10-20 g of protein, depending on the size of the snack).
- Snacks should contain healthy fats.
- Snacks should be nutrient-dense, containing essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs to keep its enzymes and chemical reactions and hormones buzzing.
- Most of all, however, snacks should feel good in your body, which means: you aren’t sensitive to them, they don’t suck more energy from you hours later, and they help balance your blood sugar. How do you know that this is what’s happening in your body? You feel good, strong and clear-headed after your snack. You don’t feel the need to snack at night, and you feel insatiable cravings diminish.
Here are some of my favorite snacks:
- Pumpkin seeds. A great snack is just this: 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, the green kind. These little babies have about 23g of protein per serving, zinc, magnesium, healthy fats, and tons of fiber. A great, low-carb, satiating snack.
- Macadamia nuts: 10-20 macadamia nuts are delicious nuts consisting of the “good” fats, heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, also found in olives and avocados that help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL.
- Mini frittatas: I love these for breakfast too.
- Date balls: Which can be combined with any form of dates/nut butters/chocolate/coconut/seeds and nuts. Just go easy on the dates. Teachers and those who work in nut-free environments can experiment with tahini, pumpkin seed, and sunflower seed butters.
- Fat bombs: Using a combination of coconut oil, avocado, cocoa butter and stevia, blend ingredients and then freeze in muffin tins. Add some protein powder, nuts and/or seeds to them to round out the macronutrients.
- Hummus and veggies: Make your own hummus to avoid the canola, corn and soy oil that is often snuck into store-bought versions. I love this fuchsia beet hummus recipe.
- Smoothies: Always a great go-to. Remember: the perfect smoothie combines a) a leafy green b) a scoop of protein powder c) a healthy fat, like coconut oil or avocado, and d) something for sweetness like berries, a banana, or stevia.
- Yogurt parfait: I often mix some coconut milk yogurt, pumpkin seeds, cacao nibs, a few drops of liquid stevia, and gelatin together for breakfast. It also makes a yummy snack.
- Chocolate avocado pudding: One of my go-tos for snacking. Mash one avocado with 2 tbs cocoa powder. Add in some protein powder and liquid stevia drops.
- Homemade Jello: Get your collagen a-building. You can take any liquid, creamy or clear, warm it up in a saucepan until steaming, add gelatin (1 tbs per cup of liquid), and let it cool down to room temperature, then cool further in the fridge overnight. Try putting it into gummy bear molds, or experimenting with gelling up golden milk, or teas. The possibilities are endless if you’re a jello fan.
- Sardines: The kind in the can soaked in olive oil, or water (avoid the canola oil or soya oil versions, please). Your brain will love the omega 3 fatty acid hit.
- Leftovers! I often tell my patients to bring a big meal with them to work: a salad with protein and avocado, or a cabbage “rice” pad thai with chicken thighs, or a paleo chilli with kale and spinach packed into it and curry spices. Eat one half for your early lunch and the other half at 3pm.
What about a piece of fruit?
Fruit on its own, while a portable snack, is often a disaster for blood-sugar regulation. To keep it more satiating, add some nut butter to it, or throw it into a yogurt parfait or smoothie. Alternatively, add some dried fruit to your pumpkin seed, macadamia and almond trail mix for sweetness.
Remember: the goal of snacking is to balance blood sugar.
Through good blood sugar balance, we have better stress hormone responses, healthier weights, better hormone balance, clearer focus, and brighter mental health.
What’s your favorite protein and fat-rich snack?
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