Fueling Health with Smart Meal Patterns and Nutritious Snacks

March 20, 2024

Summary

Benefits of Consistent Meal and Snack Patterns

Eating meals and snacks at regular or consistent times most days can have benefits for health and weight loss.

Eating at regular times can support normal function of many hormones, including these.

  • A hunger hormone called ghrelin so hunger levels are more predictable and controlled
  • A satiety hormone called leptin so it’s easier to feel satisfied when you eat
  • A blood sugar-lowering hormone called Insulin so your blood sugar levels are more stable
  • A repair hormone called growth hormone so your muscles and other tissues can be repaired and maintained
  • A stress hormone called cortisol so unhealthy effects on metabolism and cravings are reduced
  • A sleep hormone called melatonin to support normal sleep and wake cycles

Eating and drinking at regular times can help you predict when you’ll be hungry. That’s helpful for weight loss because you can plan nutritious meals and snacks ahead of time.

Consistent patterns can also help you detect irregularities in your hunger levels or food consumption.

  • Being more hungry than usual can mean you could focus more on fiber and protein to replace less nutritious foods. It could also mean you’re tired.
  • Eating more than usual can mean emotional eating.
  • Being less hungry can mean you’ve been eating more slowly or mindfully, or you’ve been eating a lot of nutritious, filling foods

How many meals and snacks a day are best?

Having small meals and some snacks can help maintain metabolism and stabilize energy and blood sugar levels.

Some people prefer larger meals and fewer or no snacks. Some people prefer lots of snacks without large meals.

The best meal and snack schedule for you depends on your preferences and schedule. Here are some other factors that can affect your meal and snack schedule.

  • Exercising in the morning: you might want a small snack with water early in the morning
  • Exercising in the evening: you may want a small snack with water afterwards
  • Working long shifts without breaks: you may need more snacks if you can’t have larger meals
  • Extra eating on weekend due to social or family events: you may eat a bit less during the week

Reasons for Snacking

Snacks can have many purposes. Here are some reasons for snacking.

  • Hunger - tiding you over between meals
  • Nutrition - adding needed nutrients
  • Emotional reasons - stress eating or eating instead of handling emotions in other ways
  • Cravings - wanting specific food or type of food
  • Social cues - such as being with people who are snacking
  • Environmental cues - such as seeing or smelling snacks

Planning snacks

You can plan your snacks using calorie counts according to how many calories you have left in the day after accounting for meals.

You can also look at food groups to plan snacks. Here are components you can consider.

  • Non-starchy vegetables - these are always welcome!
  • 0-2 servings of carbohydrates like whole-grain bread, cereal, or pasta, popcorn, fruit, oatmeal, brown rice, or starchy vegetables like potato, corn, peas, or sweet potato
  • 0-2 servings of protein like chicken, fish, beans, egg, cottage cheese, low-fat cheese
  • 0-1 servings of healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, or seeds

Here are some sample snacks.

  • Whole-grain pasta salad with vegetables and vinaigrette
  • Whole-grain bread wtih eggplant spread
  • Tuna salad on whole-grain crackers
  • Pear with goat cheese

Here are some sample low-carb snacks.

  • Chicken or shrimp skewers with vegetables
  • Baked kale chips with olive oil and parmesan cheese
  • Cottage cheese with vegetables and seeds

Make snacks work for you

Eat slowly and mindfully so you get full when you snack.

Sit down when you eat so you can focus on your snack.

Plan snacks ahead of time so you can always have healthy foods available. Here are some options you may find in convenience stores and fast food joints.

  • Raw vegetables like carrots or celery sticks
  • Side salads or salads with grilled chicken and light dressing
  • Oatmeal or whole-grain cereal
  • Fresh fruit or fruit cup

Yogurt or yogurt parfait

Health Coach Q & A

How do you stay consistent if you only eat when you are hungry?

This is a really good question!

First, it is wonderful that you eat when you are hungry. It is always a good idea to respond to your hunger cues. It is also great that you’re listening to your body. The more you listen and respond, the more your body talks!

It sounds like you’re looking for additional help establishing consistency and matching that with your hunger. If you currently are not having any consistency with meal and snack times, it may help to start by setting a time for one meal, say, having lunch at noontime (or whichever time and meal works for you) each day. 

Each noontime, as you prepare to eat, check in with yourself to assess hunger. Are you hungry? How hungry are you? Then eat your meal mindfully, and check in about fullness and enjoyment. 

Once you start to notice that you’re consistently hungry for that first consistent meal, and you’ve established a consistent size of that meal, consider adding a second scheduled meal or snack to your day. Again, continue checking in on hunger and fullness. When you’re ready, you can add in another meal or snack at a consistent time each day, and continue from there. 

Eventually, your eating times and your hunger should be more predictable, and should match up!

What about these food patterns and frequencies when one is doing Intermittent Fasting (IF)? 

The great news is that you can follow the same principles with intermittent fasting (IF)!

If you’re doing IF on a schedule that has a 16-hour fast followed by an 8-hour eating period, you can gradually establish consistent eating times for your eating period. You might start by setting a pre scheduled time for one or two meals or snacks, and gradually increase from there. Always be careful to monitor your hunger and fullness levels to keep your body in sync with your eating patterns.

Are you advising that we have a protein with each snack?

It’s a good idea to have a serving of a high-protein food with most meals and snacks. Protein helps reduce hunger. Having a high-protein food at most meals and snacks helps ensure that you reach your protein requirements each day.

In most cases, it doesn’t need to be with every single meal and snack. Most Americans get more than enough protein. Plus, many foods have at least a small amount of protein, even if they’re not considered “protein foods.” For example, a snack with a ½ cup of whole-grain pasta with some cut vegetables can have about 7 grams of protein. That’s the amount in a large egg, and there are not “high-protein” foods in that snack!

What are your thoughts about 30-gram protein shakes?

It’s good to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Keep in mind that most people don’t need protein supplements, as Americans tend to get plenty of protein. The body can only use about 20-30 grams of protein at once, so there’s no real purpose in having more than that. Extra protein gets used as energy or stored as fat.

It’s also good to remember that drinking shakes tends to be less satisfying than eating whole foods. That means drinking shakes isn’t as helpful for weight loss, generally.

Here are some ideas if you’re looking for protein sources that are convenient that aren’t shakes.

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Low-fat string cheese sticks
  • Pouch tuna
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and plain nonfat yogurt
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cooked skinless chicken breast
  • Low-sodium, low-fat refried beans

If you want shakes, it’s good to choose a brand that is low in added sugars. You can also make your own with ingredients like yogurt or tofu, fruit, and kale or spinach leaves, 

Do you have suggestions for brands for bars, etc that are healthier. I do prepare some snacks with fresh food, but have days that a kitchen is not readily available, or run out of grocery and cannot no time to replenish for a day or two?

That’s a great question! It’s good you’re thinking ahead. 

Bars can be convenient. Look for brands with ingredients like nuts and seeds, and without added sugars - you can check the list of ingredients and the nutrition facts panel. Another option is just to take your own nuts instead of purchasing bars.

If you don’t have a kitchen, you might want to opt for ready-to-eat snacks or snacks that are make-ahead. Here are a few items you could use in your snacks.

  • Unsweetened whole-grain cereal like Oat O’s, shredded wheat, or puffed brown rice
  • Brown rice cakes or popped light popcorn (or pop your own ahead of time)
  • Apples, bananas, oranges, tangerines, and pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Pouch or can tuna or salmon
  • Low-sodium beans or refried beans
  • Whole-grain bread like whole-wheat sliced bread, whole-grain English muffins, whole-wheat pita or tortillas, or whole-wheat mini bagels
  • Peanuts, almonds, cashews, and other nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocados 

If you have a fridge, these are some additional options.

  • Plain nonfat yogurt
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Cooked chicken breast
  • Low-fat cheese or string cheese

What are good examples of unsaturated Fats? I always miss that daily goal.

That’s a good question. Unsaturated fats can help support heart health, especially when you choose them instead of less healthy fats. 

Here are some examples of healthy fats. 

  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut butter 
  • Peanuts
  • Almond and cashew butter
  • Almonds, cashews, walnuts, and other nuts
  • Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Salmon, tuna, and other fatty fish 

Here are some examples of ways to get more healthy fats. 

  • Make salad dressing with olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and herbs 
  • Have guacamole or hummus instead of creamy dips
  • Choose salmon or other fatty fish instead of red meat or chicken
  • Make peanut butter and apple sandwiches or wraps
  • Use canola oil instead of butter when baking 
  • Use olive oil instead of butter when cooking
  • Spread mashed avocado or peanut butter instead of butter

This blog may help, too.

Is there a way for the Lark app to give you a total calories you are eating daily?

You can always contact our support team for specific questions about the Lark app and best tips for using it!

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