Shape's Nutrition Editor admits that healthy eating isn't always easy! How she turned a snacking habit upside down, here
We’re a snack-happy country: A full 91 percent of Americans have a snack or two every single day, according to a recent survey from global information and measurement company, Nielsen. And we’re not always munching on fruit and nuts. Women in the survey were more likely to snack on candy or cookies, while men preferred salty treats. Even more: Women reported snacking for stress relief, boredom, or as an indulgence—three reasons that have nothing to do with nutrition or hunger.
When I read these statistics, I wasn’t surprised. As the nutrition editor here at Shape, I hear about new healthy snacks practically every day. I also taste test them—a lot of them! That could explain why I recently discovered that I was part of the statistics I was reading about: the one-fifth of women munching three or four times a day. Though I know that snacks can be beneficial to a healthy diet (they keep you from getting too hungry and you can use them to get in nutrients you may have missed at meals), I wasn't noshing on produce or protein. I was mostly eating whatever was in the office snack drawer—which is (a little too) conveniently located right behind my desk.
So before the holiday season launched into full-on cookie mode, I decided to get a handle on my habits and called nutritionist Samantha Cassetty, R.D., vice president of nutrition at healthy food company Luvo. Here's how she helped me rein in my tendencies.
I was snacking so much that I was often not hungry for dinner! Her advice? “Snack strategically." While she said that healthier packaged foods were smarter choices than the usual vending machine fare, they wouldn’t replace whole foods. The fix: Read the ingredient labels, and look for whole grain or bean-based chips, and look for bars with fewer than 7 grams added sugar. (Try these 9 Smart Snack Swaps for a Healthy Body.)
A Breakfast Revamp
Cassetty told me that my daily need for a morning snack (or two!) meant I wasn’t following my morning workouts with a hearty enough meal. “You should be able to go a few hours between breakfast and lunch without winding up starving,” she said. She gave me points for the fruit on my daily oatmeal, but said I needed more protein to make it last. The fix: cooking it with nonfat or soy milk (8 grams protein per cup) and topping it with some nuts. Easy enough. (I could have also tried one of these 16 Savory Oatmeal Recipes.)
Packing Lunch Isn't Enough
I got “major props” for my lunch for two reasons: I pack it from home and I include lots of veggies and plant proteins. But I lost points for thinking I could get from lunch to dinner without anything more. “Let’s face it, you are hungry in the afternoon and it’s not that surprising since it’s presumably been a few hours since your last meal,” Cassetty wrote in an email. “The ravenous, tired, cranky kind of hungry is what we’re trying to avoid.” (Amen.) The fix: to throw a cheese stick and some whole grain crackers or a Greek yogurt and some fruit in my lunch bag when I packed it up.
Armed with Cassetty's advice, I went grocery shopping, stocking up on soy milk, a bag of the string cheeses I used to find in my elementary school lunch boxes, and a decidedly healthy-looking pack of Ryvita crackers. Then, I put her advice to the test. The oatmeal trick (mostly) worked. My stomach wasn't growling by noon, but I did sometimes sneak a bite of my crackers before lunch. I figured that was okay—it just meant I’d be eating a little less of my afternoon snack. But having something on hand when the snack drawer started calling my name proved crucial. Instead of fighting that need for an afternoon boost, I admitted to myself that I was just hungry—and that I needed to feed that hunger. It sounds simple enough, but after a day of too much indulging, it's so easy to promise yourself you’ll be “good” the next day. There was no reason to deny myself food between lunch and dinner, either, and lots of reasons to eat a nutritious, planned-out snack.
As for dinnertime, I still wasn’t ravenous after work—and that was fine. “It’s better to listen to your body’s cues than to ceremoniously eat because it’s 7 p.m.,” Cassetty told me. So I stuck to my big lunch salads and lighter dinners, and called the experiment a success.
Do I still sneak into the snack drawer? Absolutely—but not twice a day and not because I'm undereating at breakfast and lunch.