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When to Snack for All-Day Energy

snacks and timer

Have you ever heard the recommendation to “eat every 3 hours” for all-day energy? Does that work for everyone? Will it work for you? And, is “every 3 hours” the magic number of hours?

To Snack or Not to Snack

In my previous blog (To Snack or Not to Snack), I mentioned that some people perform at their best by eating three meals and three snacks a day . But others perform best (in terms of their health, weight, and energy) by eating three well-balanced meals a day and avoiding snacks completely. Why is that?

Just because snacks contain calories doesn’t mean they are magical energy producers. If you just add snacks, without cutting back on your meal portions, you’ll likely put on weight and reduce your energy level. Snackers have to be comfortable with eating less at meals.

That’s why snacking is not recommended for those individuals who are overweight and inactive. If you have a tendency to overeat whenever you eat, then stick with just three meals a day (and no snacks).

So who benefits from snacking? Active people who tend to burn more calories. And, if eating between meal snacks helps to control your hunger so that you don’t overeat at the next meal, then snacks are for you, too. Or if you’ve noticed that eating smaller meals with snacks in between help you to keep your energy up, then go ahead and add snacks into your eating plan.

Full disclosure: I’ve eaten three meals and three snacks for decades. I started doing so while recovering from my eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) – and I never stopped. It works for me, but this eating approach isn’t best for everyone. Be sure to read my full blog about who should snack and who shouldn’t.

But keep reading, there’s a lot more interesting facts about snacking that might help you to power up your energy.

How Often to Snack?

Even if you’re a good candidate for snacking, that doesn’t mean you need to eat a snack between every meal to power up your energy. Or that you should set your alarm to eat every three hours.

If you’re looking for lasting energy, when should you eat a snack? The answer is very simple.

Eat when you’re hungry. 

I know…you were looking for an exact time, weren’t you? Unfortunately, there is no one answer for everyone and every situation.

You might be hungry two hours after a meal – or it could be 4-5 hours later – depending on the size of the meal. It only makes sense that you’ll likely get hungrier faster after a smaller meal, than a larger meal.

Another factor determining when you’ll get hungry again after eating is the composition of that meal. Meals higher in protein and fiber tend to fill you up – and stave off hunger longer. Fatty meals will also fill you up.

That’s why hunger returns faster after eating a pancake breakfast (which is high in carbs and low in protein) than after a higher protein breakfast – with the same number of calories - such as an egg omelet. Or why oatmeal is more filling than a bowl of processed flakes.

So, snack only when you’re hungry. Let me elaborate as to why this simple advice is so important.

Ideally, if you eat a snack between meals because you’re hungry, you’ll likely compensate by eating less at that next meal. And, because you’re not dealing with the sensation of low blood glucose and the distraction of being hungry, you should feel more energized.

Research indicates when people eat a snack when they’re not hungry, they tend to eat the same amount at the next meal that they usually would. That’s not going to help your weight, health, or energy level.

Ok, but if I’m hungry, what should I snack on?

Small Snack, Large Snack, Mini Meal?

Before I suggest actual snack ideas, let’s talk about an appropriate portion size to energize you. Here’s why this is important.

As you know, food is fuel. But just because “calories” refers to a measurement of energy doesn’t mean that eating more calories will make you feel more energized. You know what I mean. Think of the last time you overeat. Did you feel energized? I’m guessing not.

So, how many calories should you eat at snack time for lasting energy? Again, I wish I had a simple, “one size fits all” answer. While it depends on a couple of considerations, understanding this will help you to keep your energy up all day long.

The wide availability of 100-calorie snack bags at the grocery store makes you think that 100-calories is the perfect size. And it is…for some people.

100 calories might be a good snack size to stave off your hunger and keep your energy up. (Though let me add that most of the 100-calorie snack bags are so processed that these are not the best choices for snacks). More on this later.

On the other hand, physically active people (and those preferring smaller-sized meals) might require larger snacks – perhaps something in the range of 150-200 calories. Others may want to eat something larger - more like a small meal or mini-meal with perhaps 300-400 calories.

So how often should YOU eat? Here are several different scenarios to help you discover an eating pattern that might work to help you to increase your energy during the day.

Eat a Second Breakfast Like a Hobbit

After one of my presentations, during Q&A, an audience participant asked what I ate for breakfast. I shared that I tend to eat a small breakfast, followed a few hours later by a second breakfast. And he responded, “Oh, like a hobbit?”

Did you know that hobbits like to eat a second breakfast? Perhaps because I’ve eaten a second breakfast for years, I likely didn’t pay much attention to this fact when reading J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit.

Eating a second breakfast isn’t just for hobbits, though. It’s a common practice in other cultures. According to this article,many Europeans enjoy a second breakfast. Germans refer to this as zweites Frühstück while Austrians sit down at a Gabelfrühstück (fork breakfast). Farmers here in the states have been known to grab a quick breakfast (such as coffee and toast) and then enjoy a larger second breakfast after the morning chores.

What about you? Would you benefit from a second breakfast? It might be a good idea for those of you who don’t really have time or an appetite for breakfast upon awakening.

Mid-Afternoon Snack

Although it’s different for different people, many people feel a slump in their energy level in the middle of the afternoon. Why is it so common?

In short, it’s a normal aspect of our body’s biorhythms. During our 24-hour circadian rhythm, the body experiences continual 90-minute cycles of alertness, much like a roller coaster. The lowest lows naturally occur during the middle of the night and again in the middle of the afternoon. The more sleep deprived we are, the more intense we feel this afternoon fatigue.

You may be able to power through this low period of alertness by switching to a less challenging task, taking a power nap, getting some movement, or imbibing in a small dose of caffeine. Having a small snack during this time might help, too, but only if you’re also feeling hungry.


Split Lunch or Split Dinner

Do you eat a late evening meal? As discussed earlier, nighttime eating is not recommended because it’s often related to weight gain and poor health. Yet many people eat dinner as late as 8 or 9PM because of a preference or because of their work (or life) obligations.

What can you do if you don’t want to (or can’t) eat dinner any earlier? Try splitting a meal! Let me explain how this works.

If you experience hunger and fatigue due to a long gap between lunch and your evening meal, a small snack just might not be enough. A mini-meal might power up your energy better – and prevent you from getting so hungry in the evening.

If you eat lunch at a restaurant (where portions tend to be large), try eating half at lunch and saving the other half for that late afternoon period.

Or pack a mini-meal from last night’s dinner for your late afternoon snack. The idea is that if you eat a mini-meal at 4-5PM, you will rein in your appetite and eat less in the evening.

After Dinner Snack

There’s a running joke on late night TV that older people tend to eat their last meal of the day early – around 5PM. I guess I’ve been “old” my entire life. Because I don’t want a snack or even a mini-meal at that time. I’m so hungry that I’m ready for dinner. You, too?

Eating an early dinner helps your body to digest the food before you lay down to sleep. Night time eating is associated with obesity and other health issues. Are you one of the 20% of the population that experiences GERD or acid reflux? If so, one of the simplest ways to treat this is to stop eating a few hours before bedtime. Research has shown that shorter dinner-to-bed time was significantly associated with an increased incidence for GERD.

But, is it ok, if you eat an early dinner, to have a small evening snack? I do. Having a small cup of cereal or a slice of buttered toast prevents me from getting overly hungry. It’s hard for me to fall asleep if my stomach is growling.

All-Day Nibbles

Perhaps you’re wondering…if food is fuel, is it healthy to avoid large meals and just nibble a little something throughout the whole day? For example, eating a small snack every hour or two?

Probably not.

I’ve met quite a few clients who eat just one meal a day. They tend to keep snacks and then nibble throughout the rest of the day. If all those foods are healthy, like nuts and dried fruit, what’s the probably with that?

There are at least three downsides of non-stop nibbling. One, is that with eating only tiny servings of food at one time, one never feels completely satisfied. Sure, the strong hunger pains go away, but that’s it. They often keep snacking throughout the day because they never feel like their hunger is completely satisfied.

Another reason has to do with the process of digestion and absorption. When we eat, our body responds with certain enzymes and hormones to help us to turn food into small pieces that are then transformed into fuel. Carbohydrates (such as fruit, milk, and grains) are an important source of fuel, especially for the brain.

Our gut breaks carbs down into glucose molecules – which are then tiny enough to get released into our blood stream to travel to the cells that require the fuel.

Now, to get into the cells, carbs need insulin. Insulin has been compared to a key needed to unlock the cell.

If you’re practicing all-day nibbling, your pancreas is tasked with the non-stop production of insulin. And, that’s not good. It’s best to give your body a rest between meals and/or snacks of a few hours. So, it’s a good idea to eat enough at that meal or snack to give you at least three hours energy. Not just a nibble.

The last downside of non-stop nibbling is for your teeth’s sake. Dentists recommend brushing your teeth at least twice daily. But, if you’re nibbling all day long, your teeth are constantly soaked in partially digested particles which can cause cavities.

So, I recommend that you just say no to non-stop nibbling.

Healthy Boundaries

To prevent overeating, it helps to set up healthy boundaries around both meals and snacks. These include:

  • Limit your eating to only designated areas such as sitting at a table - in a restaurant, kitchen, or break room. Avoid eating everywhere and anywhere - such as on the sofa, in the car, or at your desk.
  • Avoid distractions. When you eat while doing other things, your brain doesn't register the pleasure of eating. And you just might find yourself reaching for more food. So avoid eating while working, reading, watching the screen, or driving.
  • Enjoy the food. Eating should be pleasurable. So, while it's important to select foods that give you the fuel/energy you need, don't forget to select foods that taste good to you. In fact, give yourself permission to enjoy some pleasurable foods, even if they're not necessarily "healthy." Be sure to learn more about this in my Pleaser/Teaser blog.    

Will Snacking Give Me More Energy? 

So, will eating more often through the day provide you with more energy throughout the day? Maybe not.

There’s nothing magical about eating more often to power up your energy and to help you lose weight. Overweight, sedentary individuals do best with three well-balanced meals a day – and no additional snacks. If you’re active or if eating “light and often” helps you to control your appetite or keep your energy up, go ahead and add in one, two, or three snacks. Non-stop nibbling is not recommended.

What are the best healthy snacks? Read the blog HERE

What about energy bars? Do they hold up to their claim? What are the best ones out there? Read more HERE

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