Spend some time around kids and you'll see that they like to nibble throughout the day. Snacking is a natural thing to do. We evolved as frequent grazers, not meal eaters - and it's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the foods you choose are appropriate. And if you are truly hungry, it can be a healthy habit that can help you manage your weight and balance your diet.
One problem with the way we snack, though, is that we tend to do it on the fly, so we don't pre-plan and we don't pay attention to what - or how much - we're eating. Instead of packing a healthy snack to eat at work, we'll grab a candy bar from the vending machine. Or we'll sit down in front of the TV with a whole package of cookies, rather than setting out a reasonable portion on a plate.
Most people get hungry about every three to four hours, so smart snacking may prevent you from overeating at meal time, provided you plan ahead. The reason snacking has gotten a bad rap is because so much of what we think of as 'snack food' is high in fat, sugar, salt and calories. But there are plenty of healthy alternatives.
A well-balanced snack accomplishes a couple of things. It satisfies your hunger and keeps you going until your next meal, and it's also a good way to work more healthy items - like fruits, veggies and dairy products - into your day. Ideally, a snack should give you a mix of some healthy carbs like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and some low fat protein. A small bowl of cereal with milk, some yogurt with fruit, some hummus dip with baby carrots, or a pop-top can of tuna with whole grain crackers all pack enough protein and fiber to help keep you satisfied.
The afternoon stretch between lunch and dinner can be a difficult time. Many people make the mistake of trying to "tough it out", but then end up eating too much at night. Rather than a small snack in the afternoon, try having a 'second lunch', something a little more substantial like a protein shake or a low calorie frozen meal. Then, you can do your cutting back at dinner time.
But if you're snacking out of habit, not hunger, say when you're watching TV at night, that's a habit worth trying to break. Snacking in front of the tube leaves you so distracted that you don't pay attention to how much you're taking in. And, the longer you watch, the more you'll eat. To help you break the habit, start by making better choices for after-dinner nibbling - a piece of fruit, some air-popped popcorn, or a pre-portioned pudding snack might work. If you want to try quitting cold turkey, try brushing your teeth right after dinner. Most people will skip the snack if it means they have to brush twice.
Better yet, you could do something instead of eat while you watch TV. You can make a little room on the floor and do some stretching or sit-ups. Some people jog in place or jump rope during the commercials. If you watch TV for a few hours, you could actually piece together a pretty good workout during those commercial breaks.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.