Everyone snacks. Okay, maybe not everyone, but almost everyone. But for something that contributes to our diet as much as breakfast, lunch and dinner do, it's somewhat surprising that relatively few people know whether they are following good snacking habits - or even that there is such a thing as a 'good snacking habit'.

Most snacks consumed today skew toward to prepackaged and processed kinds. Consuming empty calories - those that add calories but little else - that are high in refined sugar, white flour, gluten and food colouring is, in general, bad for you.

If we were to go back 2000 years, we would note that food's primary function was to sustain one's life. No food; no life. Food was simply calories to be consumed. Of course, this remains true today, though thankfully, the threat of starvation seems to be a distant concern for most people in the industrialised world. Yet, for many of us, our lizard brains still perform the same calculus as our distant ancestors' brains did when presented with something to eat: calories equal life, so dig in.

In the past fifty years, something significant happened to the composition of our food, and our consumption paradigm shifted.

But in the past fifty years, something significant happened to the composition of our food, and our consumption paradigm shifted. Real foods - natural fats, leafy vagetables, ripe fruit, grass-fed beef - were replaced with industrial foods. These new foods were cheaper to make on a larger scale, and therefore cheaper to buy. Food scientists and marketers capitalised on the opportunity to hack our palates with foods both sweet and salty to make them perfectly addictive. 

We are just now waking up to a new world in which the elegant simplicity of the food-equals-life equation has become much more nuanced. In this new environment, all foods are not created equal. There are those that sustain and those that inflame. So when it comes to choosing snacks, it is worth asking,: what are we about to put into our bodies?

Why We Snack

It is important to understand that snacking is not only normal, but it is also an absolutely health endeavour, as long as the nutritional value of the snack is beneficial. We snack for many reasons, the primary of which is to stave off hunger. But there are also physical and cognitive perks that snacking provides.

Snacking can boost cognitive focus throughout the day by helping us maintain blood sugar levels. Our bodies digest whole foods that include fats, proteins, and fibre at a slower and more consistent rate, and therefore release a steadier stream of glucose to the brain. Conversely, a snack that is high in refined sugar will spike insulin levels and cause one to be more hungry and less focused in a shorter time. 

Letting snacks play an occasional role beyond nutrition is a perfectly normal pattern of behaviour.

Another benefit of snacking is that it helps prevent overeating at mealtime. There's a difference between 'ruining your dinner' and preparing your body with vital nutrients. Sitting down to dinner hungry can lead you to consume more calories that you actually need. In a state of heightened hunger, you tend to eat faster. Numerous studies have shown that individuals who eat slower typically consume fewer calories than their fast-eating peers. 

For anyone who works out or plays a sport, preworkout snacks are imperative to optimising performance. The right balance of protein can help us keep our mind focused and increase endurance by slowing muscle breakdown during activity. Also important is having the right postworkout snacks in your bag. We lose many minerals need to be replaced quickly so our bodies can work efficiently. With a deficiency of certain minerals, such as magnesium, we may have fatigue, muscle cramps and a harder time getting oxygen to our muscle cells. 

But of course, there are also numerous emotional reasons that we nibble throughout the day: when it's time to take a break, when we're bored, when celebrating with others, or, perhaps when we're just feeling a little blue. To me, letting snacks play an occasional role beyond nutrition is a perfectly normal pattern of behaviour. Of course, it is imperative that we remain mindful of the frequency and nutritional composition of emotional eats, and make smart choices. By choosing whole-food healthy snacks, you can feel good eating them, knowing you won't crash later in the day.

How to Snack

One of the main reasons that there isn't a universal guidebook to snacking is that snacking patterns vary greatly based on the needs of an individual. The snacking frequency of a rambunctious two year old who is growing like a weed should be vastly different from a sedate fifty-something office worker. That said, there are a few guidelines that anyone can follow. 

But how do you know if you need a snack? What signals should you look for? 

For starters, if you feel even slightly hungry, go ahead and have a snack. When you usually think about it, though, what is it to 'feel hungry'? The signs are usually much more subtle than a rumbling tummy, which can often be quelled by a glass of water, as many times we mistake thirst for hunger. Is your energy starting to wane? Perhaps your ability to focus on the task at hand is becoming more of a challenge. Are you becoming more irritable? When any of these symptoms start to surface, it's snack time. 

I'm often asked by my clients who struggle to interpret the hunger signals from their bodies for a snack plan that provides a bit more structure to their daily routine. My advice: for an average person of average size, a basic snacking-plan would entail two snacks a day, the first about halfway between breakfast and lunch, the second about halfway between lunch and dinner. It's really as simple as that.

I also generally counsel my clients to close the kitchen at seven p.m. In the evening after dinner, as you subconciously prepare for slumber, your body enters a fasting process during which your metabolic rate and digestive process slow significantly, sort of like a bear preparing to hibernate.