It's important to eat something healthy and nutritious in the middle of the morning or afternoon in order to stave off hunger pangs and prevent you feeling starving by the time your next main meal comes around.
If you let that happen, you're more likely to make food choices that aren't so healthy and also to over-eat, says 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore.
Nutritious snacks will also help you to stop grazing on biscuits, chocolates or other 'treat' items throughout the day, and they're a great way to have one of your daily servings of fruit or low-fat dairy, for example.
Healthy Snacks are Stepping Stones
"By making healthy choices you're able to ensure you meet your nutritional needs," says Georgie.
However, she points out that even if the ingredients are healthy you shouldn't eat something that fills you right up.
"A snack should be like a stepping stone to help you get between meals," she says.
"It should be something healthy and nutritious that will stop a rumbling tummy, but it shouldn't fill your stomach completely."
If you're unsure how much food you're eating each day, try keeping a food diary for a while.
What to Avoid
While it's important to eat a snack between main meals, some are healthier than others.
Some of the not-so-healthy ones we often reach for include packets of chips, roasted nuts, lollies or biscuits from the office jar.
Then there are those we might think are healthy but are actually full of sugar and fat, such as muesli bars and muffins, or loaded with high-GI ingredients, such as sushi, which has a disproportionate amount of white rice bound together with sugar.
Foods like these might satisfy us temporarily, but they leave us with a feeling of wanting "more".
If they've become part of our eating habits, we tell ourselves we need them to get through the day - particularly in the afternoon - but nothing could be further from the truth, says Georgie.
"Poor food choices can lead to a feeling of fatigue soon after we've experienced an initial high from the food," she explains.
"To solve that slump we tend to reach for another food that will provide an instant result or blood sugar spike rather than something that will provide more sustained energy.
"These fluctuations in our energy levels are not good for our health and often we end up eating more throughout the day because we choose high-calorie snacks."
What to Look for
- A snack should be high in nutritional value, with a good mix of protein, low-GI carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals
- It should be low in fat, salt and sugar
- Ideally it would be high in fibre
- It should be convenient - easy to make, peel or to carry with you
- However, it needn't be easy to eat. If it's something that takes some time to chew and consume, it prevents "mindless" eating or grazing, where you don't even notice what you've had
Examples of What to Choose
If you've been used to munching on chocolate, chips, biscuits or cake between meals, it can be hard to know what to choose as a healthy snack, so here are three of Georgie's top picks:
- "Nothing beats a piece of fruit or some veggies," she says. "An apple, banana or even a carrot all travel well, are budget friendly and easy to buy at any time of year. Fruit provides a great vitamin and mineral boost, plus plenty of fibre."
- "A tub of low-fat yoghurt will help increase your dairy intake for the day and provide some protein. It's also low GI so will keep your blood sugar levels more stable and leave you feeling fuller for longer."
- "Air-popped popcorn is a great option. It's incredibly filling and has few calories but plenty of fibre. You can buy air-popped popcorn in single-portion sizes which are very easy and convenient."
Other examples include:
- A punnet of strawberries or other berries
- A couple of wholegrain crispbreads with mashed avocado, cottage cheese or sliced low-fat cheese
- A slice of wholegrain bread/toast with peanut butter (choose the variety with no added sugar or salt)
- 20 wholegrain rice crackers
- In the winter, a sachet of chocolate powder stirred into boiling water makes a great low-calorie treat
- A cup-a-soup is also great in winter, but check the sodium content isn't too high. Alternatively, you could make your own soup and portion it into cup-size serves
- A small can of salmon or tuna in spring water, mixed with a small can of four-bean mix
The Best Time for a Snack
There are no hard and fast rules about when to eat your healthy snacks, which is where the stepping-stone idea (see above) is useful.
"Our main meals should be spaced fairly evenly apart, with a snack eaten sometime slightly closer to the second meal than the first one," Georgie says.
She adds that it's important to learn to recognise when we're hungry, which can be hard to do in today's world, with unhealthy treats constantly on offer in workplaces, cafes or even at home.
"A lot of people actually don't ever experience hunger," she says.
"I'd suggest you have a snack when you start to feel hungry - it may be a rumbling tummy, a crawling feel in the stomach or something similar - as this indicates that the snack is needed.
"And bear in mind that if you've had a massive meal earlier, a snack may not be necessary."
Tips for When You're Out and About
It's one thing to buy foods for snacking that you can store in the fridge at home or at work, but what about when you're out and about shopping, running errands or taking the kids on a day trip?
Here are some tips for snacking when you're out of your usual comfort zone.
- Try to avoid cafes where cakes and sweet treats are the mainstay of their mid-morning or afternoon business
- Visit a fruit stall or greengrocer to enjoy fruit outdoors in a park
- Invest in a handy chiller bag to carry your snacks
- Carry cut-up vegetables and low-fat dips in small plastic containers
- Carry tubs of low-fat yoghurt and cottage cheese plus plastic spoons in your chiller bag
- Packaged servings of low-fat cheese with wholegrain crackers are ideal for when you're out. Georgie says a good snack serving of cheese is roughly the size of a small matchbox
- Always carry water with you - for a start, you may be thirsty rather than hungry and it will also help you avoid turning to soft drinks
Those Tempting Office Treats...
It can be hard to say no to cake when someone in the office is celebrating a birthday.
Similarly, catering at work meetings often revolves around pastries or cupcakes, which can be hard to resist.
The best thing to do in situations like these is to eat a healthy snack beforehand so you're less likely to feel tempted by the treats.
Eat it about 20 minutes ahead of time, because it takes our brains that long to register that our stomachs are satisfied.
If you're able to take something with you to snack on during a meeting, even better.
Stand or sit as far away from the food as possible and don't feel pressured to have cake.
There's no need to make excuses - a polite "no thank you" should be all that's required.
Equally, don't feel pressured to help eat the food at meetings to stop it being thrown away.
"Just remember, it either goes in the bin or sits on your hips," says Georgie. "I know where I'd rather it be!"