We've always been told that snacking, when done correctly, is a healthy eating habit to incorporate into our everyday routines. Snacking can help us to maintain a steady weight, improve overall nutrient quality, eat the recommended daily food groups and reduce overall junk food consumption across the day.
However, the benefits of snacking depend on the frequency of snacking, the types of foods snacked on and the amounts being consumed. So how much is too much? How much is too often? And – importantly – when does snacking instead turn into grazing?
Unfortunately, the difference between the two is becoming blurred and the frequency of snacking, especially later in the day, has increased across all age groups, according to Jean Hailes dietitian Stephanie Pirotta.
"There are many reasons for this change, but some may include minimal meal preparation time, increasing work schedules, lack of meal preparation knowledge, skipping meals [especially breakfast], or stress-induced emotional eating, just to name a few," says Ms Pirotta.
In her research into adults' eating patterns, Deakin University's Dr Rebecca Leech found women who 'graze' throughout the day are more likely to gain weight than women who eat at traditional meal times. Yet we've been told that snacking is good for us and part of a healthy diet – so what do we do?
Firstly, let's define the difference between grazing and snacking. There is no 'official' definition, but excessive snacking is, in fact, grazing.
Grazing commonly includes "frequent eating of an undefined portion of food, during undefined periods in the day", with short intervals between each 'graze', says Ms Pirotta.
"Studies have found that people more likely to graze include males, people who are overweight or obese, are of a white background and have higher income levels," she says.
Grazing often involves – but is not limited to – the consumption of high-energy, nutrient-poor foods. Over time, this contributes to excessive daily energy intake and weight gain, which in turn can lead to the development of chronic disease. Grazing can take place at any time of day; however, poor health outcomes are more likely to be linked to later eating habits, especially after 8pm.
Unlike grazing, traditional snacking is planned and isolated in nature. It is designed as a small meal in between the day's main meals, to keep you ticking over and to prevent overeating. It is recommended that snacks are consumed about two hours before or after a main meal.
"Being a planned behaviour, snacks are therefore less likely to be in response to stress, boredom or excessive hunger," says Ms Pirotta.
Dietary guidelines for snacking recommend nutrient-dense, low-energy foods and smaller portion sizes. Research shows that snacks from the core food groups – grains, meat or meat alternatives, fruit, vegetables, dairy or dairy alternatives – when eaten between regular, wholesome main meals (depending on your needs and exercise levels) promote a feeling of fullness and reduce the chance of you eating junk food, or overeating later in the day.
This results in a balanced daily energy intake, helping to support a healthy weight and overall wellbeing.
So what can you do each day to reduce the chance of snacking turning into grazing?
Ms Pirotta recommends these tips to 'snack right' and avoid 'graze days':
Ms Pirotta recommends snacks that provide a protein base with some carbohydrates and healthy fats. Protein makes you feel fuller for longer as it's digested at a slower rate than carbohydrates. Fat is also digested at a slower rate, but provides the highest energy content, says Ms Pirotta, "so you need to be careful".
Protein sources throughout the day also help to break up overall protein intake, helping repair the body, especially after an exercise session (for both cardio and resistance-training).
Ms Pirotta's recommended snacks include:
Changing your behaviour may seem daunting at first, but the best way to start is to set small achievable goals, says Ms Pirotta.
"Over time, these small goals will make a big change in the right direction. Even if you don't meet your goal one day, don't worry! We're all human, and it's human and healthy to indulge sometimes," she says.
"The key is not to indulge too much too often, and enjoy regular physical activity. But for individualised nutrition advice and professional health behaviour counselling based on your lifestyle, preferences and physical activity levels, it is best to see a dietitian."
3 THINGS TO KNOW
- Grazing commonly includes frequent eating of an undefined portion of food, during undefined periods of the day, with short intervals between each 'graze'.
- Snacking is a healthier option. It's planned and isolated in nature and designed to be a small meal between main meals.
- Snacks from core food groups – grains, meat, fruit, vegetables, dairy – help to reduce overeating later in the day.
To learn more about healthy eating plans, click here.
This article was originally published in Volume 2, 2018 of the Jean Hailes Magazine.