woman eating a muffin with milk

We are a snack nation: Data from the USDA estimates that almost one-quarter of our daily calories come from snacks. We’re talking over 400 calories a day for the average woman, and almost 600 calories a day for the average man. As a registered dietitian, when I read stats like these, I feel pretty compelled to ensure you’ve got some healthy plant-based snack ideas on hand.

Is snacking good for you?

There are a lot of reasons why people snack. Hunger seems like the obvious one…but is it the most common? Research suggests that we routinely snack simply because we are offered a snack, others are snacking, we’re simply craving a taste, or we are in a location where we are used to snacking…like in front of the TV.

If you’re hungry, you should eat. I think that eating when you are hungry is a healthy habit. However, as part of a mindful eating lifestyle, it’s worth occasionally examining where the hunger is coming from. Are you skimping at meal time, only to be ravenous later? One common pattern I see in my practice is that people under eat healthy foods before 5PM and then overcompensate after 5PM, usually with less healthful foods. This can create a vicious cycle where you wake up less hungry, under eat early in the day and set yourself up for nighttime eating later one.

On a plant-based diet, I also find that frequent hunger can be related to the absence of adequate plant-based protein and fat at a meal – particularly if you are craving sugar or carbohydrates all the time.

The USDA data suggests that the more you snack, the more likely you are to consume more calories overall. A clear reason for this is what we choose to snack on. For example, snack time usually means ‘hyper-processed and packaged food time’.  Not quite as catchy as ‘snack time’…but it’s the truth. Snacks tend to contain higher refined carbohydrates, particularly sugar, than meal times.

Does snacking boost your metabolism or balance your blood sugars?

In school, I was instructed that eating every 3-4 hours keeps your blood sugars stable. It’s malarkey, and not currently supported by scientific evidence. What eating every 3-4 hours does is keep you in the fed state. If you eat enough and get the right balance of foods at meal time – in particular plenty of plant-based protein, healthy fats and fibre – your blood sugar curve will be stable and so will your energy levels. Full stop. It takes time and experimentation to find your unique meal balance, however, I find that when you’ve hit on the right mix, it should keep you full for 3-5 hours, easy.

How constant snacking affects your hunger signals

Like I said, when you’re hungry, you should eat. You should also choose the eating pattern that makes you happiest. Some of us are most comfortable eating three meals a day, others prefer four smaller meals and others prefer to graze. In exploring snacking with my clients, two factors I consider are whether they are in touch with their natural hunger cues and how their snacking is affecting their gut health.

For example, if you are a grazer, do you graze because your stomach is rumbling? Or because you are in an eating flow? While it is absolutely okay to eat when you’re not hungry from time to time – for example, if your colleague offers you a fancy chocolate they just brought in – doing so constantly is out of sync with a mindful eating approach. I like for people to explore what it feels like to be truly hungry every once in a while so that they can stay connected to their body’s cues. If you’re an eater who never feels hungry and never feels full, it might be worth exploring the reasons why with a registered dietitian so you can consciously choose the relationship you have with meal times.

How snacking affects your gut

Because I have a digestive health practice, a common strategy I employ is meal spacing. Sometimes, this looks similar to overnight intermittent fasting…but more often, I talk about the spacing between daytime eating opportunities. The reason for this is to get in sync with your gut’s natural rhythms.

Your gut is designed to flow through both fed and fasted states; in fact, in the post-absorptive state (where you have already digested and absorbed everything you’re going to from a meal), your gut activates a stronger wave of peristalsis known as the migrating motor complex (MMC).

While not fully understood, the migrating motor complex sweeps the gut contents through the gut, helping to control bacterial growth. In clients with slow motility, like constipation, or potential small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, I want to harness the power of the MMC as part of their nutritional therapy. However, the MMC only turns on in the post-absorptive state. It also needs time to work. So, if you’re eating every 2-3 hours, it’s likely you will not activate it unless you are asleep. So eating a good sized, balance meal, and waiting for true physical hunger (tummy rumbling is evidence that the MMC is switched on) at least once a day can be supportive of gut health.

What, and how much should I be eating at snack time?

I have probably used the word calorie in this blog post more than I have used it on the entire rest of my website. I hate talking about calories because they tell you nothing about nutrient-density and health. However, at snack time – and probably only at snack time – measuring calories is a useful mirror for our snacking choices.

For example, if you’re a woman who consumes 800 a day in snacks, that is a hint that you:

  1. May be over snacking, and perhaps under eating at meals
  2. Perhaps making less healthful snack choices
  3. Perhaps consuming too much energy overall
  4. Perhaps out of sync with hunger cues

Some of the healthiest foods have plenty of calories, so if I found that those calories came from raw almonds, avocado and blueberries, I’d be less concerned.

Another reason why calorie number is important is that if you are a three meal a day kind of person, snacks should actually be minimal. For example, standard advice is that a snack should be in the ball park of 100-200 calories, max. Why? The function of a true snack – as opposed to someone who prefers to consume 4-5 mini meals – is that it is just enough to boost your energy until meal time.

10 Easy – and Healthy! – Plant-based Snack Ideas

When it comes to snacks, I find that people often fit into one of two categories:

  1. Snacks are prepackaged snack foods, or,
  2. Snacks are endless bags of baby carrots

I believe that snacks can be so much more: based on whole plant foods, enjoyable to eat and easy to throw together. So here are some of my favourite snack ideas, some that are simply assembled…and others that are prepared in advance.

  • The internet is full of energy ball recipes…but I think that my Pumpkin Pie Energy Balls are perhaps one of the best.
  • Wash, dry and freeze red grapes for a way-more-delicious-than-you-think snack when you’ve got a craving for something cold and sweet.
  • Give the baby carrots a rest and a couple of times a week, slice up fun veggies like jicama, kohlrabi, endive and radishes and dip them in my addictive Miso-Cashew Dip.
  • For a sweet craving that truly satisfies, stuff one Medjool date with a tablespoon of peanut butter and perhaps throw 2-3 chocolate chips in there. Out of this world!
  • My friend Tori’s Kale Chickpea Snack Mix combines two of my fave things: crunchy chickpeas and kale chips.
  • Make a 4 minute snack salad: chop half a grapefruit and toss with 1/4 of an avocado, diced. Add a bit of fresh mint if you’re into it.
  • If you need chocolate, make my Tart Cherry, Hemp and Cashew Cacao Bark in 5 minutes
  • Slice pear, sprinkle it with a bit of cinnamon and dip in in 1 tbsp of almond butter
  • Give plain nuts an anti-inflammatory upgrade: Turmeric Cashews from 101 Cookbooks
  • Slice smoked tofu and serve with seed crackers or rye thin crisps for a protein-rich snack.
  • Bonus…because I’m absolutely obsessed with my Super Seed Brittle recipe.