On the black list: Face it, no one stops at one square of chocolate. Photo: Quentin Jones
It's mid-afternoon and your concentration is flagging. Those spreadsheets on the computer screen might be looking a bit wobbly and pretty soon the familiar pang of hunger starts to kick in.
Rather than ambling mindlessly to the vending machine for a bag of sad old chips, take a moment to consider what – and why – you're about to eat.
For too many of us, snacking is where we bend (or break) our otherwise healthy eating routine. It's our habits between meals – rather than during – that could stand a little scrutiny.
Dairy delivers a healthy hit of lactose and protein after exercise. Photo: Quentin Jones
Sydney dietitian Alan Barclay says one of the most common traps is eating when you're feeling stressed or tired rather than listening to your body's true signals of hunger and fullness.
Rather than suppressing your desire to eat, however, he suggests trying some simple swaps. If you find yourself reaching for a bar of chocolate, for example, try a cup of tea or coffee instead.
"Food will give you a temporary pick-up but it's not the solution to getting better or more sleep," Barclay says.
A mini tin of baked beans is packed with protein and fibre. Photo: James Davies
Adelaide dietitian Sonya Stanley suggests bulking up main meals with fibre – with wholegrain breads or salads, for example – which will keep you satisfied for longer. Having healthy "grab-and-go" snacks on hand that are easy to nibble on and satisfy savoury or sweet cravings is a good idea, too.
"There's nothing wrong with having a healthy snack if it's an appropriate size but it is all about [creating a] balance over the entire day," she says.
So if snacking in moderation is really OK, which foods do dietitians tuck into – and which ones do they avoid? We speak to three experts to find out.
Treat dried fruit with caution. Photo: Cathryn Tremain
Sydney dietitian Alan Barclay, a spokesman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, only snacks after exercise. "My philosophy is to only snack when you're hungry," he says "[That's] usually when I've been for a run, bike ride or swim."
- Milk/yoghurt: A glass of milk or tub of yoghurt delivers a healthy hit of lactose and protein to refuel the muscles, Barclay says. For extra flavour, try a dash of cocoa or chocolate but if you're watching your weight opt for reduced-fat varieties (they have higher calcium levels, believe it or not).
- Lady finger bananas: They might cost a bit extra, but Barclay can't go past lady finger bananas for taste and texture. These wedge-shaped parcels deliver all the benefits and convenience of a regular Cavendish banana without the extra bulk, he says. "When we say to have at least two serves of fruit a day, lady fingers are a perfect serve size," he says.
- Californian dates: Another winner in the taste stakes, Californian dates are great sources of carbohydrate and dietary fibre, Barclay says. "Fruits in general are usually a good source of vitamin C and potassium," he says. "They're generally low GI, so they fill you up and keep you going for longer."
Popular protein balls can be high in fat. Photo: Edwina Pickles
- Savoury snacks: Potato chips, corn chips or cheese snacks – anything loaded with highly refined starch and salt is a bad idea, Barclay says. "All those starchy, fatty salty snacks are not snack foods - they're special-occasion foods," he says.
- Soft drink: Sugary, bubbly flavoured drinks should never be daily fare, Barclay says. Wheel them out for parties, sure, but pack them away with the savoury snacks when everyone leaves. "They're a dangerous duo those two," he says.
- Confectionary: Sweets including "lollies, chocolates and all of those things" aren't sweet for your health, Barclay says. It's OK to have the odd after-dinner mint for dessert but that's quite a different thing from grazing on treats all afternoon. "It's all about context, how frequent you have it and how much you're having," he says.
Convenience is the key for Adelaide dietitian Sonya Stanley. She likes to have a stock of healthy snacks on hand at home and at work.
- Mini tin of baked beans: Nutritious and delicious, legumes are also a great source of protein and fibre, Stanley says. "A mini tin of baked beans travels and stores well, and is easily kept in the desk drawer," she says. Add cherry tomatoes or sliced mushrooms for extra flavour but put down that buttery piece of toast.
- Fresh, plain, air-popped popcorn: Emphasis on the "fresh" and "plain" – not the sugary or salty varieties. Air-popped is important too – but you'll need to invest in a home popcorn maker first. "This is a fabulous snack," Stanley says. "I usually put it together with either some dried fruit or a few dried nuts." Overall a snack great for nibbling that stores well.
- Apples: Easy to pack, easy to eat and tasty. "My personal favourite is the Fuji - they're still crispy, a little bit sweet but also a little bit tart," Stanley says.
- Dried fruit straps: Too sticky, too sugary and they don't compare to the taste of eating seasonal fresh fruit, Stanley says. Even the home-made varieties don't cut it. "I'd still go for the fresh piece of fruit every time," she says. "It's going to taste better and have better nutrition."
- Fad foods such as "no carb" snacks: Those artisan energy bars and fancy protein balls are the new muffins, Stanley says – they might look nutritious but the truth is they tend to be expensive and high in fat. "Such a huge amount of energy is packed into what looks to be a very small accompaniment to your cup of coffee or tea," she says.
- Energy drinks: Like soft drinks, these contain too much sugar, too little nutrition and don't satisfy your hunger, Stanley says. Avoid.
Dietitian Milena Katz practises in Randwick in Sydney's eastern suburbs. She tends to keep an eye on portion sizes.
- Nuts: They're full of nutrients, fibre and protein but don't go overboard. "It's just about having the right amount - probably 30 grams is a portion size," Katz says. Her top choices are peanuts, brazil nuts, walnuts and almonds. "Go for a mix of raw nuts - or you can roast them but ideally dry roast without fats."
- Vegetable sticks: "They're filling with very little calories and full of fibre," Katz says. She suggests a mix of colours such as celery, capsicum, cucumber and carrot. Vegie sticks are also easy to prepare, or you can buy pre-cut ones in the supermarket. "The less work the better," she says.
- Cold flavoured tea: Not the sweet stuff you buy, the type you make yourself. Infuse two or three different flavoured teas into a jug and let it cool down. "Drink that throughout the day as an alternative to soft drink," Katz says. "You can put dried fruit at the bottom but don't eat it." Home-made soup that's strained or pureed is another good option.
- Chocolate: It's sad but true – chocolate is mainly sugar, fat, cocoa and little else of any nutritional value, Katz says. There's another danger: "It's hard to stop at a Freddo."
- Biscuits: These little moreish bombs of sugar and flour are neither healthy nor filling, Katz says. Even home-made varieties made from muesli and the like are still loaded with sugar. "There's no such thing as a healthy biscuit," Katz says.
- Dried fruit: OK in tiny doses – but that's the problem, Katz says. "Twelve sultanas is a serving size of dried fruit or two dried apricots," she says. "The reality is adults are not going to eat that little." Shop-made smoothies are just as deceiving – they may boast fruity ingredients but are often loaded with sugar and sus ingredients, Katz says.