One of the hardest things to do well when you are trying to stick to a low sugar diet or going sugar free for the first time is snacks. Breakfasts and drinks are tricky, but snacks are often things you need at a moment’s notice, so they can be particularly difficult.
One of the great benefits of giving up sugar through the I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program was the fact that I was definitely not on a diet, and while I was losing weight, I was actually eating more at mealtimes than ever before. I was fuller and more satisfied, and didn’t feel the need to reach for snacks as much.
Even long term, I find that I snack more when I have eaten sugar or sweet things and less when I eat full, healthy, real food meals with a little good fat, fibrous filling wholegrains, satisfying protein and lots of vegetables. This is because sugar (specifically fructose) can increase the presence of “ghrelin” in the body. Ghrelin is commonly known as the “hunger hormone”, and for good reason. It sends signals to the brain that cause it to tell your body to eat more. This sugar-ghrelin link was very useful when sugar was rarely found in our hunter-gatherer days and finding an edible berry bush would mean it was a good idea to gorge for energy’s sake knowing you might not have access to it again for a long time, but with sugar so abundantly available these days, this is no longer a good thing. In fact, it tends to cause overeating, and particularly overconsumption of sugar.
Another reason for the need for eating more when consuming sugar is the blood sugar spikes and crashes caused by eating it. Your energy spikes for a little bit after eating sugar or refined carbohydrates and you feel energised and on a “high”. But, inevitably, this eventually leads to a “crash”, where you actually end up more hungry than you were before consuming sugar.
Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that you need less snacks as you eat less sugar and refined foods. You are more satisfied, have longer-lasting slow-release energy, and don’t have the sugar cravings you may be used to.
But sometimes you still need something to get you through the morning or afternoon to the next meal. And when you do, you probably don’t want to be spending lots of time preparing it! Processed sugary snacks are often easy, instant and provide quick energy, so what can we have as alternatives that will be just as easy but leave us without crashes or increased hunger hormones and cravings?
Here is my top 10 list of almost-instant, minimal-prep snacks that we rely on in our house for a quick fix when we need one:
Pots of pomegranate seeds, whole fresh fruit like berries, bananas or apples, prepared fresh fruit pots, or anything along these lines! Just make sure to stay away from dried fruit and fruit juice, which are high in sugar and low in filling ingredients like fibre (juice) or water (dried fruit), making you more likely to over-consume sugar and to be hungry again and craving sugar within a couple of hours.
Unsweetened instant oats
Now, this one will take a minute to read some labels. Some instant oat pots include honey or other sugars or sweeteners that will leave you craving more sugar. Some contain dried fruit or other undesirable ingredients. What you are looking for is a pot that has one ingredient: oats. Perhaps a tiny pinch of salt. That’s it. You can eat as is with milk or water, or add fresh or frozen fruit, nuts or seeds, or even unsweetened nut butters if you want. If you have a few minutes at the weekend, you could even save yourself some money by making your own pots with quick-cook oats that you simply decant into jars in 1 cup quantities on their own or the suggested additions.
Pre-cut raw or cooked vegetables will be instant and healthy, although again, if you have 5 minutes at the weekend to chop up a load of vegetables (or even 45 mins to pop a load of root vegetables in the oven to roast), and keep them in airtight containers in the fridge, you have vegetables you can literally reach for in seconds. I do this every week for my family – I find I can tell straightaway if my kids (or myself) are actually hungry or just bored (or looking for something sweet) by offering them vegetables. We have a “vegetables anytime” rule in our house so if they are truly hungry, they will pretty happily munch their way through a couple of their 5-a-day before we’ve even got to lunch. Occasionally they’ll even be hungry enough to try new vegetables or ones they are usually a little unsure about! Snack time can be a great experiment time. 😉 If you are having a dip with your vegetables, make sure you check the ingredients list as they can be high in sugar, vegetable oils or additives, or better yet, make your own 30-second hummus by blitzing chickpeas in a blender with some tahini, garlic, lemon juice and spices.
*remember that some vitamins (A, D, E and K) can only be absorbed by the body when consumed with fat, so serving vegetables with a spoonful of unsweetened nut butter, nuts or seeds, cheese, grass-fed meat or fish, or an oil like olive oil, coconut oil or grass-fed butter is often a good idea.
Cooked meat or fish
You can get ready-cooked meats or tinned cooked fish in all supermarkets as an instant protein boost. Of course you can save yourself money by sticking a whole free-range chicken in the slow cooker while you make dinner one night and shredding the meat from it (or using leftovers) to keep in an airtight container in the fridge and snacking on in the week. But if you are in need of a quick, filling fix while out and about, grabbing some cooked (ideally free range) meat or some tinned fish from a supermarket will be ideal. Just make sure you check labels, especially on any products in a sauce which are often high in sugar.
Boiled eggs (or unsweetened unsalted nuts and seeds)
You can buy pots of ready-boiled eggs these days from most supermarket, which make a fantastic satisfying healthy snack. I like to boil a pot of them sometimes at the weekend and keep them in their shells in the fridge for the week ahead, just grabbing and peeling as and when we need them. You could also poach eggs in a half mug of water (make sure to cover with a plate) in the microwave in 1 minute, or scramble or fry them in just 1-2 mins, so whichever you like them, eggs are always a nearly-instant snack! If you fancy a different, even quicker protein fix, you could also opt for unsweetened, unsalted nuts or seeds.
Oatcakes, rye crackers or rice cakes
When we are out and about and the kids suddenly ask me for a snack, I sometimes find it easiest to grab a pack of crackers or oatcakes. They are easy to keep in your bag and most kids will happily eat them as a biscuit replacement. Just look for ones with coconut, olive or sustainable palm oil over rapeseed or vegetable oils, and check ingredients on labels to ensure there is no sugar added. Rye crackers are often low in ingredients (and all of them are usually recognisable), as are rice cakes (unflavoured/unsweetened ones.
Plain full-fat yogurt
Keeping a couple of spoons in your purse if you are out and about means you can buy a little pot of plain full-fat yogurt and just hand it to your child (or yourself) with a spoon. You can have it as is or add some nuts and seeds and/or fresh fruit. Just avoid fruit yogurts or other flavoured yogurts, as they are very very high in sugar (some have as much sugar as ice cream). Low-fat yogurts often have added sugar, too, and are generally less filling and satisfying than full-fat, so will leave you hungry again sooner.
And a low sugar extra…
A square or two of really dark chocolate (we are talking at least 85%). This is a great low sugar pick-me-up. Check labels, but most 85% chocolate will have no more then 10-15% sugar, so less than a teaspoon in a 20g square of chocolate. I love Sainsbury’s 85% one that comes in five bars of 25g so you can just grab a bar (or, as I usually do for a snack, half a bar to share with my husband) and have about 2-3g sugar (about half a teaspoon). This may not be an option during Sugar Free January or Sugar Free February or the I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program, but outside of these times, it’s an excellent choice when you just really really want a chocolate hit. If you are on one of these detoxes, try a few cacao nibs instead – it’s intensely chocolate-y (not sweet at all) – or a sugar free chocolate milk like this recipe without the sweetener (try it with cinnamon to sweeten – it’s surprisingly nice and easy to get used to).
Need more inspiration? Check out these ideas:
And on the other side…
Things to avoid (except as occasional treats):
Children’s fruit snack bars (usually dried fruit – sometimes even with added sugar), crisps cooked in vegetable oils or flavoured, raisins or other dried fruits, dates, juice, smoothies (unless homemade without juice as a treat), granola or cereals, cereal bars, biscuits and cakes and other obvious high sugar snacks, fruit yogurts or flavoured yogurts, anything with added sugar (including syrups and honey), vegetable oils or unrecognisable ingredients on the label, as well as most processed packaged snacks.