Snacking is one of the biggest saboteurs of weight loss. And quite often we don't even realise we're doing it. Or even if we do realise, do we know how many calories it adds up to? Usually far more than we thought....
Disclaimer: my work is NOT aimed at people who are struggling with eating disorders or who have active significant mental health problems, and who may need more specialist help to manage what might be driving them to overeat. If you have any medical problems please consult your doctor before embarking on any weight loss or exercise programmes.
So the first step to tackling this is to understand what's going on....
Imagine going to a shopping centre or shopping online ....spending £20 in Marks and Spencer, £14.99 in Boots... £3.50 in WH Smith... £18 in Next....£15 in the Body Shop....£8.99 in Costa, and £20 in Primark. Unless you were using cash and could see it disappearing, or were using a spending app that tots it up as you go, would you have realised that you had spent over £100 until you got home and added it all up? It's the same when we have snacks throughout the day. Each snack on its own may not be very high in calories, but when we add them all up, they can end up as being more than our meals!
Picture this (assuming regular portion sizes)
Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs on 1 slice of toast with butter (range from 300 - 400 calories)
Lunch: Chicken or cheese salad sandwich and a yogurt (range from 400 - 600 calories)
Dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese (meat or vegetarian and side salad (range from 500- 800 calories)
Total 1200 - 1800. The range generally needed for a calorie deficit.
Now lets add some snacks in with some ball-park calorie amounts:
Latte: 200 calories
Banana: 120 calories
Yogurt with granola: 250
Blueberry Muffin: 350
3 digestive biscuits: 240
4 finger Kit kat: 220
Hot chocolate: 200
Small glass of orange juice: 100
Packet of crisps: 150
Handful of nuts (unmeasured): 300
4 cups of coffee or tea with 2 heaped spoonfuls of sugar:250
Total meal plus snacks: 3580 - 4180 if you had all the snacks listed!
So worst case scenario, if we ate 1800 calories for our meals and then snacked throughout the day on these foods, we could be consuming up to around 4180 calories a day. Given that it is generally accepted that if we eat 3500 more than what we need we will gain a pound of fat, and a general ball park daily weight maintenance figure for a woman is 2000 calories and for a man is 2500 calories, it won't take long for that weight to pile on. Even if you only had half this amount of snacks you could still be consuming an additional 1000 calories. Still wondering why you can't lose weight?
So now that we are aware of what's going on, what can we do about it?
I always advise weighing and tracking food as we eat it as the first step. It is time very well spent as it is a really good way to educate ourselves about what and how much we are eating, and help us to make better decisions. It's like shopping with cash. You can see how much you're spending and how much you've got left, and once it's gone it's gone.
Put some limits on how many snacks you will have
Have what you like but if tracking you can see what you can accommodate. You might need to cut back on your meal calories to accommodate them if you know you do better through the day with some snacks.
Plan plan plan!!! Plan in advance what you are going to have
This is a big part of staying in control. If we wait until we're hungry before we decide what to do, we are far more likely to make an unwise decision as hunger is very powerful.
Don't eat if you are not physically hungry
Have water with you, or make a cup of tea or coffee. Eating when not hungry is not helpful. Your body doesn't need food when you are not hungry. It's a simple as that. Be in tune with what your body needs, not what your emotional brain is trying to trick you into.
But don't get TOO hungry - be prepared for emergencies!
Have some pre-prepared snacks available in reach when you go out, so if you get caught short you can have one before you get too hungry and lose control. But be disciplined and keep to your allowance. Remind yourself of your goals.
Understand, recognise and accept the consequences.
You wouldn't shoplift because you know you'd get in to trouble and it could have big implications for your future. Apply the same principle here. Don't take what you can't afford as you know it will only lead to trouble later. Really imagine where it will lead you if you continue to snack in an uncontrolled way. Do you really want to have to deal with those consequences? If you think it's hard now, how hard do you think it will be in another few years if you haven't changed your snacking behaviours? Nobody wants to deal with ill health but that's ultimately what we're choosing when we continue to behave in ways that are not supporting our health and our desire to have a healthy body that will last us as long as we need it to.
Be careful about what you are choosing.
If you struggle with sugar cravings, eating sugary snacks really isn't going to help... the more you eat of them the more you will want, and sugar is hidden in many places. So check the labels on things and start making substitutes to things, like fruit (whole fruit, not juice - the fibre content will help and your body deals with it differently to refined sugar), dark chocolate, Greek yogurt, unsalted nuts. Be sure to weigh your portions of these things though until you are confident about how much of them you can accommodate. Especially try to avoid packaged snacks with lots of sugar in them.
Take responsibility for your decisions
Remember that cravings don't MAKE us eat, they make us WANT to eat. We still make the decision to ACTUALLY eat, because we choose to. If we say we can't stop as we're craving it, all we do is take all our power away from ourselves, and we don't take responsibility for our behaviour. If we accept the craving but choose NOT to act on it, we are giving ourselves back the power. The craving will not harm you! The more you resist it, the easier it will get. And the cravings will lessen, the less sugar you consume. Snacking is often habit-based, so we need to take responsibility for developing new habits. It can also be driven by emotional eating so this may need to be tackled alongside the practical changes. Check out my blog post on this here.
Have some strategies in place as your plan B Know when you're most vulnerable to snacking. Think of every scenario you know you will find difficult, and make your plan as to how you will deal with this BEFORE it happens again.
Allow yourself treats
Not every single snack has to be 'healthy'. If you have certain favourite snacks that are not the most healthy, limiting them is sensible but cutting them out is often unrealistic. So plan ahead how you might be able to accommodate them. Planning really is key here.
So how about something like this....
Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs on 1 slice of toast without butter (range from 200 - 300 calories)
Lunch: Chicken or cheese salad sandwich and a yogurt (range from 400 - 600 calories)
Dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese (meat or vegetarian)and side salad (range from 500- 800 calories)
Total 1100 - 1700. The range generally needed for a calorie deficit.
Now let's add some snacks in with some ball-park calorie amounts. You could have some or all of them:
3 x tea or coffee with semi-skimmed milk with no sugar: 120
100g Greek yogurt, strawberries and a sprinkle of granola 150
2 finger Kit Kat (treat): 110
25g Handful of nuts (measured) with a banana: 250
Total meal plus snacks: 1730 - 2330 if you had all of them.
Q: Is it better to have 3 regular meals with snacks in between, while staying within your calorie allowance, or to just have 3 meals with gaps in between?
A: In my opinion, this is a very personal thing... do what works for you, what will help you stick to your goals. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Personally I tend to have no snacks in the morning, but will often have one in the afternoon, and sometimes have a very light one in the evening. As long as you stay within your calorie allowance and are only eating when you are hungry, it doesn't really matter.
Q: Does an element of "intermittent eating" come in- is it better to give a good few hours for your body to process the last meal then get hungry again?
A: Same as the above really - there are some studies that show a long break can have health benefits, but if that means you get too hungry and lose all resolve, then you're no better off. Do what works for you.
Q: If you're going to snack, should it be a quick energy fix or a slow release snack? Does that depend on how you're feeling and what you're about to do next, activity wise?
A: Yes absolutely it depends on how you are feeling and what you are going to do. If you are about to go for a run, or just need an energy boost, then a quick energy release carbohydrate snack, such as a ripe banana, some orange juice, 4 or 5 jelly babies or a sports energy gel would be ideal, but if you're sedentary, or not going to be exercising until later, then a slow energy -release carbohydrate snack would be great. It's easy to make a carbohydrate snack more slow-release by adding protein and fat to a carbohydrate - eg a level palm-sized amount of unsalted nuts with the banana.
Q: Why can't I control myself?
A: This is a difficult one to answer simply. If you are compelled to behave in a certain way, you may need specialist help to work this out. However, if you are able to exercise control some of the time, then this shows you CAN control yourself, and it may simply be down to the language you are using when talking to yourself and the habits you engage in, in response to situations. When we say we "can't" do something, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we take our power away from the situation, and also remove our responsibility for it, and therefore we don't really put the effort in. Whereas when we look for evidence to demonstrate that we CAN control our behaviour, we can build on that, take responsibility for our behaviours and recognise that we are doing what we choose to. Then we can practice new behaviours in response to common situations, by making a different choice, and develop new habits. It takes time and effort but can be done, if we WANT to. Snacking can be a way of helping us feel better, and we may feel scared to give it up. So we may need to reframe this to consider what we will gain by gaining control over our snacking behaviour. See my blog on emotional eating for more on managing this.
Furthermore, it often comes down to how much we are prioritising ourselves and our wellbeing. It may be that you also need to work on valuing yourself more and not leaving yourself last on the list.
Q: As I am such a sugar addict do you think I should stop sugary treats and swap for fruit?
A: Yes. The more sugary things we consume, the more we WANT to consume. See the section above on being careful about what we are choosing. But ideally don't have the fruit on its own as it may not satisfy you enough - ideally add some fat and protein. Greek yogurt and berries are great, for example. See next question...
Q: What are the most satisfying snacks to have?
A: Things that release their energy the most slowly, including slow-release carbohydrates. See the reading list at the end. Try to get all three macro nutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) in every snack as this will slow down the digestion. Greek yogurt with strawberries and topped with a sprinkling of granola, 2 or 3 Ryvitas with peanut butter, a banana with some nuts or a small glass of milk are just a few ideas.
Q: Are homemade snacks better than shop bought, like cake bars?
A: If trying to reduce sugar cravings or trying to eat more healthily, cake bars are definitely not the most ideal thing to have. Homemade snacks are always better if at home, as you have control over the ingredients, but when out and about, things with nuts or oats that have not got too much added sugar are better. Avoid flapjacks though as they are packed with sugar and fat and hence very high calorie and will cause you to crave more. See the question above for examples of homemade snacks.
Q: How many snacks a day should someone eat ? If any at all?
A: I would suggest no more than 3 or 4, and regardless of how many, they need to be incorporated within your calorie allowance and when you are hungry.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with snacking, as long as we are doing it with full awareness. But we have to KNOW and UNDERSTAND what and how much we're having and how we can accommodate them within our daily energy intake in order to achieve our goals, and make sure we are hungry when we eat them. Planning ahead is key.
If you found this helpful why not check out my top 10 tips for eating less without dieting, for some tips on how to manage your food intake in general, which may help with reducing how much you eat, including reducing how much you snack. For example eating your meals more slowly, and making healthier food choices may help you to stay satisfied for longer and want to snack less naturally.
If you need a bit more support why not check out my e-book, Preparing for Successful Weight Loss, where I cover all the things that need to be in place to lose weight and keep it off, and help you uncover what might be holding you back from getting to grips with your snacking, and overcome it.
General advice on healthy eating https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/
Slow release carbs https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325586