The Science of Snacking
Jul 1, 2013
Got the munchies? Good. Snacking is a must to fuel your active body. As a clean eater, you’re used to eating five to six meals a day, which includes two to three snacks (up to four if you’re very active). But did you know that snacks do much more than tame your between-meal hunger?
Research shows that eating the right combination of nutrients in these small meals can enhance gym performance, fat-burning, muscle-building and recovery. Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association says, “We already know that the timing of snacks eaten in relation to exercise is very important, but what is new is the focus on nutrient composition (protein/carbohydrate/fat) of snacks eaten before and after exercise as well as between meals.”
For example, a pre-lunch snack that’s high in protein may be the best-kept secret to staying slim. Recent research in the British Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that eating a high-protein, moderate-calorie cheese snack one hour before lunch led participants to eat less at the next meal. Because snacking serves many purposes for you – weight maintenance, energy replenishment and muscle repair – here’s how to snack right.
So when do you need to pare down your fat, reduce your carbs or load up on protein? Studies indicate that the recommended percentage of each macronutrient – protein, carbohydrates and fats – changes from snack to snack. And while it’s important to take this into account, you also need to consider your body’s own tolerance levels. “Our bodies know amounts, not percentages per se,” says Andrea Chernus, MS, RD, co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance.
A half-cup of cottage cheese before bedtime has proven muscle-preserving benefits, but if you can’t stomach that at night, there are other good options that fit the macro-mix recommendation that may work better for you. Ah, choices – that’s the beauty of snacking and ultimately what will keep your diet on track. The following guide not only explains the simple science of snacking, but also arms you with a variety of options. Nosh away!
Are you at the gym before the crack of dawn? You don’t want to run on empty and risk early fatigue from low blood sugar levels. Research shows that the best way to mitigate that is to eat a small meal rich with carbohydrates that do not spur a spike in blood sugar. Because low-glycemic carbs elicit a lower blood sugar response, they may boost the body’s use of body fat for energy.
Translation? You can burn more fat if you eat muesli with low-fat milk before a morning workout instead of a bowl of cornflakes. For those who don’t work out before breakfast, reserve this snack for midmorning to keep your blood sugar and energy levels up and to maintain your muscle glycogen stores for activity later in the day.
Nutrient Breakdown: Carbs (40%), Protein (30%), Fat (30%)
Snacking Goal: Boost your energy level and glycogen stores.
- 1 slice whole-grain bread with 1 tbsp natural peanut butter + 1 cup protein-fortified skim milk
- 1/2 cup whole-grain cereal + 1 cup low-fat milk + 1/2 cup blueberries
- 1 packet plain oatmeal made with 1 cup low-fat milk + 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Hitting the 3:00 p.m. energy slump can be avoided by snacking two hours after lunch. Doing so has many benefits: It will keep your blood sugar stable, which is key to preventing a dash to the vending machine later – and it will also facilitate muscle recovery and keep glycogen levels up. “A snack that contains fiber, some protein and healthy fat slows digestion and provides more of a time-release supply of energy, rather than a big gush at one time (like from sweets or starchy snacks),” Chernus says.
Nutrient Breakdown: Carbs (40%), Protein (30%), Fat (30%)
Snacking Goal: Calm your cravings, restore glycogen levels.
- 1 medium whole-grain tortilla + 2 tbsp hummus + 2 tomato slices + 4 cucumber slices + 1 oz tuna (optional)
- 1 small pita, 3 oz chicken breast, 1/2 cups cucumber slices, 1 slice tomato
- 1/2 cup whole-grain couscous + 4 ounces cubed tofu + 1/2 cup broccoli + 1 tsp olive oil + 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Rev up your workout energy in two ways: Eat a carb-rich snack within an hour or two before you exercise and you’ll be able to exercise harder and consequently burn more calories. “Preworkout snacks should be light, easily digested and lower in fat – so there is no decrease in blood flow to the muscles,” Gerbstadt says. Secondly, drink water before you go. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) suggests drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water to prevent dehydration and improve performance.
Nutrient Breakdown: Carbs (60%), Protein (20%), Fat (20%)
Snacking Goal: Energize your workouts.
- 3 rye crisp crackers with 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese + 1 small piece of fruit
- 1/2 whole grain English muffin, 2 tbsp hummus, 1/2 cup fresh berries
- 1 cup vegetable soup + 3 small whole-grain crackers + 1/2 cup applesauce
Known in bodybuilding circles as the “window of opportunity,” this is a prime time to snack. That’s because within 15 minutes of completing your workout, your muscles are like sponges waiting to refill their glycogen stores. So for effective rebuilding and recovery of muscles, eat a carb- and protein-rich snack that’s very low in fat. After a 30-minute workout, Gerbstadt recommends “combining a mixture of different types of high-carb foods like fruits, whole-grain breads and pastas with high-protein foods like lean meat, low-fat cheese, yogurt and whey protein.”
Nutrient Breakdown: Carbs (60%), Protein (30%), Fat (10%)
Snacking Goal: Repair and jumpstart muscle recovery.
- 1/2 cup non-fat chocolate milk, 1 slice whole grain bread, 1 tbsp natural peanut butter
- 1/2 oz parkt-skim mozzarella, 1 oz turkey breast, 1 6-inch corn tortilla, 2 tbsp salsa
- 1 1/2 oz roasted unsalted soy nuts + 1 medium fresh orange
- Red Recovery Shake: 1 cup skim milk + 1/2 cup strawberries + 2 scoops whey protein powde
Cap off your day with this optional mini-meal if you are genuinely hungry after an active day. At night, eat a snack that is made up mostly of high-quality protein. “Protein-rich foods supply ready amino acids for repair of muscle during sleep – and rest is when muscle repair occurs,” Gerbstadt says. Foods with casein, a primary protein in dairy products, are a good choice as they provide a slow release of amino acids into the bloodstream, which builds muscle and can prevent muscle breakdown overnight.
Nutrient Breakdown: Carbs (30%); Protein (50%), Fat (20%)
Snacking Goal: Tame cravings and prevent muscle breakdown.
- 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese + apples slices
- Fruity Milk Shake: 1 cup low-fat milk + 1 scoop whey protein powder + 2 strawberries + 1/4 cup blueberries
- 1 low-fat string cheese + 1 small pear
The Perfect Snack
Portable and potassium-packed, there’s no denying that a banana is a healthy food. But a single banana may not provide the ideal mix of macronutrients to support your body-shaping goals. Upgrade it to a super snack anytime of the day by adding the following foods to it:
- Morning: 1 medium banana + 1 tbsp natural almond butter + 1 cup water
- Afternoon: 1 medium banana + 3/4 cup low-fat cottage cheese +1 cup water
- Preworkout: 1 medium banana + 1 cup skim milk + 1/4 cup strawberries + 1 scoop whey protein
- Postworkout: 1 small banana + 1 slice whole-grain bread + 1 slice low-fat cheese + 1 cup water
- Bedtime: 1 small banana + 1/4 cup nuts (almonds, walnuts or pistachios) + 1 cup water