Keeping a growling stomach tamed while trying to slim down leaves most of us stumped over how and what to eat. A rigid three-meal-per-day plan just doesn’t work for most people, often leading to insatiable hunger that results in overeating. Supplementing with mini meals can definitely help, provided you don’t wind up mindlessly munching all day. According to Keri Glassman, R.D. and author of The New You and Improved Diet, it’s completely possible to lose weight and still feel satisfied by embracing mindful, healthy snacking. We recently chatted with Glassman to get some more insight. Check out some of her top snacking tips.
1. Think about snacks as meals
Let’s kick things off by readjusting our attitude toward snacks. We often think of them as a separate category from our main meals, but Glassman doesn’t find this mindset very helpful. “I always say we shouldn’t even call foods ‘breakfast,’ ‘snack,’ ‘lunch,’ ‘snack,'” she said. “Every meal should almost have the same name.” The idea here is that you’re always eating food rather than a bunch of empty-calorie bites. Just because the grocery store categorizes packaged chips and cookies as snacks doesn’t mean you have to. “The fact is it doesn’t need to come out of a bag or box,” Glassman said. This means everything from an apple with some almond butter to the second half of a sandwich you ate for lunch can qualify as snacks.
All this being said, snacks should still be smaller than your core meals. “It’s not like they’re all exactly the same size,” Glassman said. “But you just have to get into the mindset of eating whole, real foods throughout the day.”
2. Focus on the foods instead of calories
A lot of nutrition experts focus on a set number of calories for snacks, but Glassman isn’t a huge fan of tracking your intake so rigidly. Instead, focus on reasonable portions of real foods. “You should know what a portion of something is, you just shouldn’t be stressed about counting every last calorie,” she said. Your basic formula should be to build a mini meal out of something that satisfies your particular craving while offering a good balance of fiber, protein, and healthy fat. Some of Glassman’s favorites are mashed avocado stuffed into the white of a hard-boiled egg and a bit of mozzarella with a slice of tomato and balsamic vinegar.
3. Never allow yourself to get too hungry or too full
When it comes to timing your meals and snacks, Glassman says some people need to eat every few hours while others can go up to four. Instead of stressing out over the amount of time, tap into where your hunger falls on a scale of one to 10, one being completely satisfied and 10 being ravenous. “I always say you should be between a four and a six,” she explained. “Six is slightly hungry, so you should eat. And four is slightly satisfied, so you should stop.”
Folks consistently falling way too far on the hungry side of the scale should take a more detailed look at their overall diet. “They probably didn’t get enough of a real meal two hours before,” Glassman said. If you make sure to get a good dose of lean protein and vegetables in each meal, you’ll very likely find yourself comfortably between a four and a six.
4. Calm your cravings wisely
Most of us have a particular category of foods or a flavor profile that comes to mind when we start to get hungry. For a lot of folks, it’s a craving for something sweet. While your inclination might be to head to a bakery to get a brownie, know there are smarter ways to tame your desire for something sweet. “Maybe it’s a high-fiber cracker with two teaspoons of almond butter and a drizzle of honey,” Glassman offered. “Or maybe it’s peanut butter on an apple with a little bit of cinnamon and cocoa powder.”
The desire for something salty and crunchy is nearly insatiable for others. Once again, think healthy snacking. Glassman has a partnership with Andy Boy Broccoli Rabe, and is a fan of turning the veggie into chips. “It’s just broccoli rabe that you mix with a little bit of oil and sea salt and roast them. Similar to the way people eat kale chips, it’s just something a little more innovative,” she said.
5. Recognize whether or not you’re truly hungry
As wonderful as healthy snacking can be, it’s not going to be particularly helpful if you don’t actually need those calories. Consider someone who always gets a candy bar from the vending machine each afternoon. Glassman offered, “Are you really craving it, or is it just a habit?” Not that habits are always the easiest to break, but recognizing the problem is the first step. Maybe you can begin working toward a new, healthier habit. If a trip to the vending machine is really just to get away from your desk for a while, find other ways to give yourself a mental break.
People who snack late at night are particularly guilty of habitual eating. “Half the time people are eating late at night just because they’re staying up late,” Glassman explained. “You shouldn’t be eating, you should be sleeping.” And consider if staying up late means you’re not getting enough sleep because this may actually lead to overeating. One recent study featured in the journal Sleep found sleep deprivation disrupts our appetite pathways in a way that may increase hunger.
Lastly, make sure you’re getting enough to drink throughout the day. “Being hydrated is going to make sure you don’t mistake thirst for hunger,” Glassman said.
6. Be flexible
Some days, you may find your usual snack simply isn’t enough. If you had a particularly active day or you just finished a workout, you may need to increase your intake a bit. Using the example of a piece of fruit with some nut butter, Glassman suggests bumping up the amount of nut butter. “Don’t start eating out of the jar, but allow yourself an extra teaspoon,” she recommended.
Produce is another smart way to bulk up a snack without going overboard. “Maybe add some vegetables, which are super low in calories, to sort of fill you up with fiber and water volume,” Glassman offered. As long as you tune into your hunger cues and stick with healthy snacking, you shouldn’t stress over every last morsel of food.
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[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published July 2016]