Ring in the New Year With Healthier Snacking Habits

There’s no better time to ditch the empty calories for healthier snacks, whether to tackle that ‘quarantine 15’ or help control blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol.Photo: Ildiko Aranka Papp / EyeEm/ Getty Images

At the start of the pandemic, many of us indulged in comfort food (and alcohol) to get us through those early days of uncertainty. But as time wears on, the effects of comfort food and stress eating are starting to show: Nearly one-third of respondents in a poll conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies said they had put on weight since the first country-wide lockdown in March 2020.

As we ring in a new year — with the promise of vaccination on the horizon — there’s no better time to ditch the empty calories for healthier snacks, whether to tackle that ‘quarantine 15’ or help control blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol. But like many New Year’s resolutions, it can be hard to make those healthy habits stick.

When it comes to snacking, a good offence is the best defence, according to Cheryl Strachan, a cardiac dietician with Sweet Spot Nutrition in Calgary. Try prepping snacks ahead of time — when you have the time and energy. “Because it’s often in that moment when you don’t have the time and energy that you’re reaching for a snack,” she says. Or tie a new habit to a pre-existing habit; for example, prep snacks for the next day while you prep dinner.

Many of us reach for carbs to soothe our mood, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “There’s this idea that carbs are bad, but … it can actually help your mood,” says Strachan.

Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly, sending glucose into your blood stream and spiking blood sugar levels. A bag of chips, for example, will give you a rush of energy, followed by a crash. But foods with complex carbs can provide more sustained energy levels, and carbs with fibre (like fruits and veggies) can help you stay full longer.

Strachan suggests avocado or peanut butter on a slice of sprouted grain bread, which is lower on the glycemic index than processed breads (meaning it doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels as much). An apple with cheese, or celery with peanut butter, mixes protein with fat so you feel fuller.

Nicole Osinga, a registered dietitian in Ontario’s Durham Region, recommends incorporating protein or healthy fat into your snack to “give it that longevity.”

Greek yogurt, for example, is a good base for a snack since it’s high in protein, but “you can take it beyond yogurt and berries.” Osinga uses plain Greek yogurt to make spinach dip or yogurt bark (spreading it out on a baking sheet with nuts and seeds and placing it in the freezer). Kefir can be used in smoothies for a dose of probiotics, while chia seed pudding provides a sense of fullness along with omega-3 fatty acids.

Just like carbs, we also need fat — and without it, we often don’t feel full. “Having some fat slows down digestion,” says Osinga. “Fat doesn’t make us fat. We need fat for absorbing certain vitamins, like vitamin E and vitamin K. It helps with brain function and hormone balancing.”

More people are also choosing plant-based foods, so they may want to incorporate beans, lentils and chickpeas — all sources of protein, fibre and nutrients such as zinc — into their snacks.

“Roasting chickpeas gives you a nice crunchy snack because sometimes we crave that crunch,” says Osinga. Mixing a splash of orange juice with hummus creates a tasty dip that offers the benefits of chickpeas along with a shot of vitamin C.

When it comes to snacking, it’s not just a matter of calorie counting. “We have to feel full and have blood sugar regulation so we’re not going to experience those mountains and valleys after we’re eating,” says Osinga.

These are stressful times, says Strachan, so there’s no need to feel guilt, shame or remorse for eating the occasional bag of chips. But ‘comfort’ could also come in the form of a snack that provides long-lasting energy and immune-boosting nutrients, which ultimately serves the body better than that bag of chips.