‘I piled on the pounds from “healthy” snacking’ Seemingly wholesome, definitely tasty – ‘healthy’ snacks have hooked the nation. But, asks Kerry Potter, could all the bars and balls be doing more harm than good?
I think you’ll be impressed by my diet – it’s pretty healthy,’ I say breezily, as I hand over the food diary I’ve kept for the past few days to nutritional therapist Eve Kalinik. But as she starts reading, she doesn’t look impressed. More like horrified. ‘What on earth are all these snacks for?’ she says, pointing to the litany of Nākd and Eat Natural bars, Bounce balls and bags of dried fruit and nuts that punctuate my days. ‘They keep me going between meals,’ I say, brazening it out. ‘They’re full of sugar,’ argues Eve. ‘Even if it’s not refined sugar, it’s still sugar. And if you’re eating a decent breakfast, lunch and dinner you don’t need any of them.’ Having walked into the session expecting just to tweak my diet, I walk out having reluctantly agreed to a major, terrifying change: to quit so-called ‘healthy’ snacking.
The rise of the high-end healthy snack has given us carte blanche to scoff calorific, sugary, fatty fripperies to our heart’s content, while enjoying kudos that you’d never get from eating a KitKat Chunky on the train. It’s a trend that chimed with my own particular life phase – I started eating like a toddler because I had one. I didn’t dare leave the house without a handbag full of tantrum- nixing rice cakes and dried-fruit rolls, and I soon began applying the same logic to my own diet, grabbing a couple of cereal bars in case I got impossibly hangry.
Life had become hectic, so I peppered it with energy-boosting snacks to power through. Except half an hour after I’d boosted that energy, I’d slump, and reach for yet another snack. But, hey, it’s all healthy stuff, right? It wasn’t like I was loading up on Pringles and pick’n’mix.
I rarely weigh myself – my scales died long ago – but the pounds were clearly piling on. One evening I put on my fail-safe slinky party dress five minutes before I was due to leave the house and recoiled in horror at my reaction. Where had that enormous belly come from? Come to think of it, I had been looking a bit pudgy in photos recently – and they couldn’t all have been taken from bad angles. After meeting Eve, I read the small print and discovered that my daily roll-call of supposedly virtuous snacks actually added up to more than 700 extra calories per day. That’s almost – yikes – three Mars Bars and more than a third of the NHS’s recommended daily intake for women of 2,000 calories. Plus, every one of my favourite energy bars contained over three teaspoons of sugar – yes, from dates and apple juice, but still sugar. Instead of realising this sooner and binning my beloved snacks, I had been tackling my weight gain by exercising more – four or five runs a week rather than my usual three. That in turn had made me even more tired – so, quick, pass me a protein ball.
At least I was on-trend: a new YouGov survey for the healthy snack brand The Food Doctor found that six out of 10 British women snack at least twice a day, with 84 per cent of us feeling guilty about it. And nearly half of women surveyed were confused by messages around snacking and healthy eating. As our lives grow ever more time-pressed, snacking culture has become pervasive, with a recent Sainsbury’s survey finding one in five people is too busy to eat three meals per day. We justify this by deeming our snacks healthy, without looking too closely into whether they actually are. Coupled with this is the rise of grazing in the past two decades, after various medical studies suggested that eating little and often might boost our metabolism. The problem is too many of us now eat lots and often.
Obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe is unequivocal: ‘Stop snacking. It’s a disaster for both obesity and type 2 diabetes. If we keep refuelling all day long, we never need to burn fat.’ And nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton adds, ‘I encourage my clients not to snack, but in certain circumstances it can be necessary; for example, when your lifestyle means you have long gaps between meals.’
After my telling off from Eve, I finally took action. First to go was my elevenses – a Nākd bar with my cuppa. ‘We need to understand what’s driving snacking,’ explains Eve. ‘Often it’s habit or distraction – and we’re addicted to distraction. If we’re
not fiddling with our phone, we might hover by the fridge.’ Busted: I only ate at 11am to reward myself after I’d done a couple of hours’ work. And I only did this when working at home. Eve advised me to make a herbal tea every time I fancied a snack, preferably one with cinnamon or liquorice for a hit of sweetness. Apparently, this would eventually become a new snack-free ritual… Yeah right, I thought. But, to my surprise, it did work.
I also started to bulk up my meals with protein: lots of eggs and more excitingly, filling salads for lunch. I put a jug of water on my desk every morning, as Eve pointed out it’s easy to confuse thirst signals with hunger ones. On studying my schedule, she conceded that I may need a nibble late afternoon, as the gap between my lunch at 1pm and dinner at 8pm is too long, and suggested a couple of oatcakes with hummus, or an apple with almond butter. But like any ingrained habit, giving up isn’t easy – I found myself twitching at the times when I’d previously snack. What’s more, evil marketing geniuses will keep coming up with new ideas to trigger snack attacks. ‘Snacking is here to stay because it enables brands to sell more products, and “healthy” snacks are pervasive, even if they have pseudoscience behind them,’ says food trend forecaster Dr Morgaine Gaye.
So, have I seen the back of those not- always-healthy snacks? Almost. A few months on, I’ll still have an energy ball if dinner is a distant dream and I’m genuinely hungry. But some simple advice from another nutritionist I spoke to, Dr Pixie McKenna, ambassador for The Food Doctor, has stuck: ‘Be mindful about what goes into your mouth as every bite counts. Ask, “Am I actually hungry?” It’s not, “Would I like a snack?” It’s, “Do I need a snack?”’
It’s a shift from automatically picking up a Chocolatey Coconut Bite every time I enter Pret (it’s dairy-free! But, oh, 205 calories and 18g of fat). I am a few pounds lighter, a fair bit happier (as I’m now exercising for fun rather than to shift the extra weight) and – surprise bonus – a few pounds richer. After all, dedication to all of those protein balls, posh energy bars and other ‘healthy’ snacks was an expensive business.
‘Be Good To Your Gut’ by Eve Kalinik is published on 7 September (£20, Piatkus).
Look out for an exclusive extract from the book in next week’s issue of Stella.