Thursday Thoughts: To snack, or not to snack?

Last week was the first of the new Thursday lunch time ‘weekly chat’ sessions: a chance to get together each week to discuss all things related to breast cancer, diet and lifestyle.

The issue that seemed to be on our minds was the urge to snack: more literally the urge to take a handful of something instant, crunchy, and uber tasty and put it into our mouths. We agreed that lockdown, with more time on our hands and in the home, makes snacking a more pressing issue.

It was the first meeting and I didn’t find it easy to set the balance between hard line nutrition advice (what does the science tell us about snacking?) and human compassion (what harm can it do?). I’m not sure how others felt but I left the call feeling that I need to lighten up a bit! Over the next few days I kept returning to the conversation in my mind. What should I have said? What can be said? How can we make this a useful conversation?

First of all I want to acknowledge that the urge to snack is universal and most people snack from time to time. The question is: how healthy is it? Especially in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. Is it something to encourage and plan for when doing our food shopping?

When I was studying at ION for my original nutrition diploma (way back at the turn of the century!) you could hardly hear our speakers over the crunch of pumpkin seeds in the lecture hall, or see them through the 2l bottles of water on every desk. At that time the received wisdom was that healthy snacking is essential for perfect blood sugar control. It was over a decade later before that thinking was replaced by the knowledge that we don’t have to constantly ‘manage’ our blood sugar hour by hour, we have an impressive set of metabolic pathways that will do it for us, and we either use them or lose them. More to the point, the failure to exploit the wonders of our metabolic pathways is at the root of modern non-communicable diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.

So it is against that context that I consider snacking, and here are a few thoughts to share:

  1. What are your goals?

If we simply deal with the question on face value (i.e. what can I snack on?) there’s a risk of missing the point. We are in the group to try and promote a healthier life after breast cancer. There are a variety of timescales (some newly diagnosed, some dealing with Stage IV, some more preoccupied with recurrence) but I have to assume you’re online to get some good advice, not to find a partner in crime in raiding the larder. Your goal is to get well and stay well, right?

2. How does snacking fit with your goals?

Over the past few years it has become abundantly clear that one of the most important things we can do to be metabolically healthy is to enable the switch between fed and fasting state metabolism, and between carbohydrate and fat burning for energy. Snacking, which is fundamentally a way to stop your body having to forage in its internal larder between meals, is incompatible with those goals. The current understanding is that optimum health can be achieved for everyone by allowing your body to become properly hungry and allow your blood stream to use up all its fuel before breakfast and between meals. This is not about calories, it’s about hormones: letting insulin subside and glucagon come out to play, allowing your body to run its inbuilt repair programmes. You can consume as many calories as you need, but confine them to a time-restricted window by eating two or three times a day. In between you allow your metabolism to manage the energy gaps, rather than your snack cupboard.

I’ve been helping clients and myself to use metabolic switching for several years and I can tell you that it gets easier the more you do it. The urge to snack eventually goes away.

Unless:

  1. you keep snacking
  2. you eat too much sugar and starch
  3. you don’t get enough sleep
  4. you don’t get enough exercise
  5. you don’t eat proper meals at your set mealtimes
  6. you are chronically anxious and stressed

All of the above make it harder for your body to manage blood sugar levels between meals and will set off cravings and the desire to eat. The final point is probably the operative factor for most of us right now: it’s hard to avoid stress and anxiety when dealing with cancer, and lockdown makes it harder still.

Moreover, the urge to snack is not just about hunger, it’s about physical satisfaction, momentary reward, temporary comfort, and the fact that we are historically wired to stock up today in case of a famine tomorrow. Again, these feelings are likely to be more triggered just now.

3. How can you manage your reward system?

We are going in deep here because this is a subject that gets to the core of your beliefs.

a) Are we here simply to enjoy ourselves in the moment? Or

b) are we here to live longer?

In truth, those are hard questions to answer. Some would argue that the a) leads to b). But most people would want to have a debate about what a) really means!

There is a great book called ‘The Hacking of the American Brain’ that focuses on this dilemma, detailing how the whole of our life experience has been ‘gamed’ to offer dopamine surges. Facebook, instant food, binge TV, online shopping… all of these are successful because of the way your brain works. It’s a bit like a toddler, or a naughty puppy (something that’s uppermost in my mind just now!!): it’s very easy to banish all thought of long term goals by offering short term reward.

I’m suggesting that snacking is one of these issues. Even when we snack on healthy food we are more focussed on lighting up our brain centres than satisfying our need for nutrients. And that’s OK too – unless your long term goals will be forfeit.

If you’re still reading I’m going to assume that you are more interested in improving your health than learning about the latest product launch from Tyrells. In my opinion, avoiding snacking is a powerful way to train your metabolism. So here are a few ideas for hitting your reward centres without snacking.

  1. Make a cup of green tea and drink it in the sunshine – the gentle caffeine hit with calming thiamine will ease your metabolic shift.
  2. Play your favourite uplifting song and dance round the kitchen – the exercise will help to release energy from stores.
  3. Sit in your favourite armchair for 5 minutes with your eyes shut and watch the cravings fade away and your energy return – relaxation will help to reduce cortisol and associated food urges.
  4. Go for a walk – exercise in fasting state is very powerful, and your body will provide you with energy reserves once you get going.
  5. Plan a favourite recipe (or look up a new one) for tonight – distract yourself with thoughts of future food rather than food right now.
  6. Trigger a different reward feeling knowing that you are supporting your long term goals for health – “Flip” your goals in your head.
  7. Have a snack, and monitor closely if you feel better afterwards – helps you work out if that was what you really wanted.
  8. Have a conversation with yourself about how you are really feeling and what you really want – food? a hug? a creative outlet? some personal space? Try something new to see if it scratches the itch.

I’m the last person to say that we should sacrifice enjoyment of food for long term health, and I’m convinced we can do both. But in this world of plenty we need to be aware that our psychological reward systems are not always optimised to empower our physiological health systems. Learning to feel a sense of satisfaction and empowerment when you feel hungry* can eventually join your list of short term reward behaviours if you let it.

*in the context of a healthy amount of daily calories and nourishment.

5 thoughts on “Thursday Thoughts: To snack, or not to snack?

  1. Benjamin David Steele says:

    To my mind, it’s rather simple. I refer back to my own experience which fits the experience I’ve heard from many others.

    When I ate a high-carb diet, I snacked all of the time compulsively. It wasn’t a rational decision about maintaining blood sugar levels or whatever. I simply felt cravings and had been addicted to sugar since childhood. But then I went very low-carb and all that went away.

    I’m not any more rational about it nor do I suddenly have more will-power and self-control. I simply don’t snack because I have no desire to do so. The cravings and addiction went away. Problem solved. No conflict, no struggle. Yet I still enjoy eating and always eat to satiety.

    I no longer think in terms of snacking versus not snacking. I just eat food and these days that mostly means meals. So, I eat a meal when I’m hungry and then I’m no longer hungry — so I stop eating. There is no desire for a snack in between meals.

    On a low-carb diet, it’s even easy for me to fast. All my issues with food resolved themselves by making a very basic change to my diet. I got rid of starchy carbs and sugary foods. I still get a few carbs here and there, but I don’t worry about it nor count my carbs.

  2. Benjamin David Steele says:

    It’s interesting for a number of reasons. I wasn’t trying to get my snacking habit under control. I still don’t feel like it’s under control. Control was never necessary.

    The cravings simply went away. I had no conscious intention to achieve this goal. It was the same thing with my decades of severe depression that disappeared entirely without expectation.

    All I was trying to do was lose a little weight and all these side benefits showed up. Only later did I look around and found out others had similar experiences.

  3. Julie Pichler says:

    Thank you Dawn, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this on my FB page. I would love to find out more about how you are helping people, I’m a year 2 student at Ion and would love to specialise in cancer nutrition long term.
    I am partial to snacking and know this a reaction to stress/emotion, a work in progress!