I often say that eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day is good strategy for most people: a young kid, an adolescent athlete, an adult weekend warrior, a pro-athlete, or a non-athlete. How can that be?
Snacks help you to keep your metabolism ignited throughout the day. This provides energy and fuels your muscles, your mind, and your workouts, giving you energy to perform. Systematic fueling then helps with recovery. This facilitates peak performance, and helps prepare you for the next day’s workout (otherwise you’d feeling sluggish). Eating in between meals prevents us from getting ravenous, AKA, “hangry.” A high hunger level causes you to eat quickly, impulsively, bypassing your ability to tune in to your inner wisdom of what your body actually might need.
Some may try to avoid snacks thinking they will “save calories.” Yet, inevitably what I see happen is that they end up overeating somewhere in their day and/or end up feeling lethargic or irritable. Those who workout hard can often be heard saying, “I’m always hungry.” But the reality is they may not be eating enough at mealtimes, or may just be missing key opportunities to snack, or snack properly.
Too much exercise and not enough nutrition can suppress the immune system and cause other concerns such as fatigue, low heart rate, delayed growth, hormonal suppression (including low estrogen and testosterone), gastrointestinal concerns, performance declines such as poor recovery, poor muscle growth/strength, and failure to make progress. This is known as RED-S, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (Margo Mountjoy et al. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:491-497). Some exercise is immune boosting but too much without proper fueling can suppress the immune system.
What counts as a snack?
All foods can count as a snack! Snacks do not have to look like classic “snack food.” They may be packaged for convenience, can come from fruits, vegetables, and homemade items, or can be a smaller portioned “mini-meals.” To create a satisfying and balanced snack, pair a few different food groups together. This helps to increase satiety and keep blood sugar stable longer. Choose a full serving of each item, not just a few bites; otherwise you may feel like you checked the box for having a snack, but actually might not have ingested enough here to have a meaningful impact.
How many snacks and how big should the snack be?
The size of the snack, and number of snacks per day, depend on your nutritional needs and how active you are. A rough target of around 2 snacks per day makes sense for the average adult. However, if you are training daily, or training for an event like a marathon, spartan race etc., it is not uncommon to increase to 3 snacks daily. Adolescent athletes who do team sports and are training daily, typically require 3 snacks daily when in season. Those who are doing more than 1 training session in a day may require more snacks.
What to Eat:
Many struggle to figure out what to eat when it comes time for snacking. What are you in the mood for? Try the 3T’s: Taste, Texture, and Temperature which we discuss in our book No Weigh! This can help you sort through what you might want.
- What taste do you want? Salty? Sweet?
- What texture? Smooth? Crunchy?
- What temperature? Cold? hot?
Carbs are the primary macronutrient necessary for fueling before and after a workout. Typically, I recommend a few food groups, paired together to make a complete and balanced snack. Anyone with specialized nutritional requirements or medical conditions should consult with a Registered Dietitian for more guidance to ensure that they are meeting their nutritional needs. A variety of options include:
- Greek yogurt, granola and berries
- Hummus + pita chips + carrots
- Dark chocolate and cashews
- Crackers, cheese and grapes
- Cookies and milk
- Pumpkin muffin and Greek yogurt
- Beet crackers + tzatziki dip
- Banana + PB
- Graham cracker + Almond butter
Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S is the Team Nutritionist of the Oakland Athletics. She previously worked with the Golden State Warriors and NY Jets. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Approved Supervisor through the International Eating Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California. She is the co-author of “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” and “No Weigh! A Teens Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.” Follow her on Twitter: @WendyMSRD and on Instagram: @wendy_sterling. For more information, check out her website at http://sterlingnutrition.com/.