The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on almost all aspects of life and our eating habits are no exception.
Spending nearly all our time at home has led to many of us snacking more than we normally would.
A new survey by Public Health England revealed that since the pandemic began, 35% of people say they tuck into an unhealthy snack or drink at least once a day – up from 26% this time last year.
This is reflected in recent government data that showed an increase of around 15% in sales of take home snack foods, including confectionery and biscuits.
Why are we snacking so much more?
“Due to all the current restrictions, many of us find ourselves spending prolonged periods of time indoors and this can lead us to experience cravings or pangs for food we do not need,” explains Kate Delmar-Morgan, registered nutritionist and nutritional therapist for The Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION).
“For many, the hunger for food is actually a need to fill the boredom gap or a need for some form of distraction.
“A lack of daylight can also mean a lack of vitamin D, which – combined with stress at this time – means we tend to want to eat sweet foods as a quick fix for low mood and low blood sugar.”
Dr Mike Molloy, founder of M2 Performance Nutrition, says part of the reason we’re snacking more often is related to the body’s natural response to stress.
“The body responds to stress by increasing production of a hormone called cortisol,” he explains. “Too much cortisol is a problem, so our brain tries to ‘hit the brakes’ on its production.
“In a cruel evolutionary twist of fate, spiking your blood sugar is one of the easiest and fastest ways lower your stress/cortisol levels.
“So, if you find yourself stress-snacking, know that it is not because you are simply ‘weak-willed’. Instead, it is your body’s pre-programmed evolutionary response to that stress.”
The second major reason for more snacking, according to Dr Molloy, is that we now have nearly instantaneous access to food while working from home.
“When we worked in an office, we probably needed to leave our desk, go to a store, café, restaurant, to grab a snack. Now? The food pantry is a mere 10 steps from our desk. If those foods are in our field of view, we’re getting sensory cues to eat all day long,” he explains.
Constantly chowing down on carby, sugary treats could be playing havoc with our health, both physical and mental.
But not all snacks are created equal and you don’t have to give up grazing completely in order to be healthier.
In fact there are some real plus points for the body in reaching for a healthy snack.
“The advantages of healthy snacking are that it can help support your energy levels, maintain serotonin i.e. endorphin levels and take the pressure off having to live by three meals a day, which is sometimes hard,” explains Jane Clarke, dietician and founder of Nourish.
“However, you need to ensure that it's a proper snack full of nutrition and goodness, and not a needless nibble which gets people into difficulty.”
So now, as England enters yet another lockdown, it is worth noting that there is a way to get your snack fix in a much more healthy way.
How to snack more healthily
Prep your snacks
According to Clarke, prepping your snacks makes taking the healthy option easy.
“Chop up carrots, cucumber and pepper sticks ready to dip into either some protein-rich hummus, have an omega-3 rich mackerel or salmon pate in the fridge, or one of my favourites - peanut butter on sliced apple,” she suggests.
“All these spreads are great to spread on rye crackers for the blend of crunch and smooth, which often hits the spot.
“Having lots of tastes and textures will also tempt your tastebuds and trigger your brain so that it tells your stomach it has had enough to eat.”
Put food on a plate
It is way too easy to mindlessly eat an entire bag of snacks without realising it, but putting a limited amount of food onto a plate can help with portion control.
“Taking the simple step of forcing yourself to put food onto a plate before you eat it brings mental awareness to how much snacking you’re actually doing,” explains Dr Molloy.
Get batch baking
If you have some ingredients in the kitchen cupboard, think about baking ahead, so that you can keep a good supply of healthy tasty snacks ready to reach for.
“Don’t worry if you don’t have every single ingredient to hand, get creative and make some swaps,” explains Clarke.
“My power packed cereal bars contain a great blend of protein and slow-release energy from the oats. These handy-sized snack bars are great for boosting your fibre, calcium and zinc intake and providing a sweet energy hit when you need it, without any nasties.”
Think ‘thirst’ first
According to Delmar-Morgan, if you do find yourself craving some food between meals, you should consider whether you could actually be thirsty.
“Drink some water or even a cup of tea, get up and move around the house,” she suggests. “Then see if the hunger is genuine after 10-20 minutes.”
If it is genuine, then scroll down for suggestions for healthy snacks.
Dr Molloy suggests trying to find snack options that contain protein in them, and not just carbs or fats.
“There are a few good reasons to do this,” he says. “First, protein tends to be satiating, meaning you’ll stay fuller for longer. Secondly, protein is not hyper-palatable, so you’ll actually stop eating when you’re full.
“Third, protein has a high ‘thermic effect’, so it requires more energy to digest and absorb than most carbs and fats.”
Watch: Parents are tricking their kids into eating more healthily.
Eat a rainbow
When you do go for non-protein-based foods, Dr Molloy says we should try to opt for colourful foods that are unprocessed, such as vegetables.
“These provide substantial amounts of micronutrients and tend to be substantially lower on the calorie scale than crackers, cookies, peanut butter,” he adds.
Overhaul your main meals
Delmar-Morgan suggests making sure your main meals are spaced regularly throughout the day and well balanced. “Snacking isn’t bad, but first and foremost you should try to eat proper, nutrient dense meals and stick to meal time,” she explains.
“Focus on including a combination of complex carbohydrate (e.g. wholegrains and vegetables) and good quality protein, (e.g. meat, fish, eggs or pulses) in each meal. This in itself should reduce the need for snacks.”
Make healthy swaps
Swap out salty crisps and empty sugary treats for snacks that provide a healthy balance of carbs, protein and fat. Clarke recommends a stock of unsalted nuts, chunks of cheese, a mug of soup (much better than a couple of biscuits as a 4pm booster), or unsulphured dried fruits such as apricots or Medjool dates for something sweet.
“Have a few alongside some ideally unsalted nuts to slow the absorption of sugar,” she adds.
Healthy snack tweaks to make during lockdown
Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian at the Fruit Juice Science Centre, has provided her tips for healthy snacks to chomp on this lockdown.
A pot of yogurt – rich in calcium for strong bones and iodine for cognitive function.
A glass of pure orange juice – one of the best sources of vitamin C, which is essential for immunity support; plus it contains hesperidin – a plant compound which can lower blood pressure.
A handful of nuts – almonds and walnuts are full of healthy unsaturated fats which are good for the heart, while Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a powerful antioxidant.
Homemade cereal bar – mix together oats, milled flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, dried fruits, coconut oil, honey and a pinch of salt in a saucepan over a low heat then press into a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Place in a fridge to harden then slice into squares. Rich in fibre, omega-3 fats for brain health and magnesium for fighting low mood.
Oatcakes with hummus – high in protein and fibre which keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Dr Mike Molloy’s tips for healthier snacks:
Low/non-fat Greek yogurt with berries - Greek yogurt is higher in protein and loaded with calcium and potassium. Adding in a handful of your favourite fruit adds a nice sweet flavour to go with it. Cottage cheese is a good substitute for the Greek yogurt as well.
Fruit - Fruit has gotten a bad rap, but as long as you’re not shovelling an entire bag of grapes down, you are likely going to be just fine.
Hard-boiled eggs with hot-sauce or salsa - Eggs are loaded with protein, as well as B and K vitamins. Mixing them up with a little spice adds a nice flavour.
Baby carrots - Loaded with carotene which the body uses to make vitamin A. They are super easy to snack on, portable, and go well with most toppings (salad dressing, salsa, etc).
Turkey/Beef Jerky - Very high in protein, very low in fat and packed with flavour.
Public Health England (PHE) has launched its latest ‘Better Health new year’ campaign to encourage the nation to work towards a healthier lifestyle.
Search ‘Better Health’ or visit nhs.uk/better-health for free tools and support to help you make healthy changes.