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The Afternoon Snack...

The Afternoon Snack Attack: Can You Resist It?

When the clock strikes four you've probbaly consumed at least one snack–is this normal or a national eating epidemic? 

It’s 3 p.m. Do you know where your Doritos are?

You probably do. Actually, they’re probably smeared all over your fingers and keyboard now that you’ve frantically wolfed them down in between your two o’clock meeting and your four o’clock conference call. So what drove you to the snack machine this time? Was it true hunger or just a trick of the mind?

More Americans snack at 3 p.m. than at any other time during the day, according to a November 2008 telephone survey by Extra gum. Can we keep our national need to nosh from tipping the scales?

Sneaky Snack Attacks
Having a 3 p.m. snack is not necessarily unhealthy. Spacing out your calories during the day can help maintain blood sugar levels and keep you going until dinner. But it’s why we snack in the afternoon that can cause problems. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed—and 71 percent of women—reported this rationale for snacking: “It’s there.” And 33 percent said they don’t think about the consequences of reaching for a snack until they’ve already eaten it.

My downfall when it comes to maintaining my weight is always boredom. Those long hours between lunch and dinner—when the rush of the morning has worn off and there’s nothing to do but watch the clock—leave me restless and jonesing for something satisfying. Put a donut anywhere near me during that time and you can bet I’m going for it. Most people gain the “freshman fifteen”; I lost it, simply because I didn’t fall into the trap of snacking the minute I got off the bus from school. 

I’m not alone here. Forty-seven percent of us snack out of boredom and a whopping 71 percent nosh while watching afternoon television or engaging in some other mindless activity. 

For others, stress is the trap. Three in the afternoon is right when all the tension you’ve accumulated since 9 a.m. hits, and many of us (39 percent) cope by reaching for our favorite comfort foods. Especially if you work through lunch, the long hours of ringing phones, answering emails, and just dealing with day-to-day office problems makes that afternoon mocha frappe with extra whipped cream sound like it would really hit the spot. 

The Culture of Consumption
Snacking is a relatively recent invention. With everyone on the go, our meals have become catch-as-catch-can. Michael Pollan, in his New York Times Magazine article, “Our National Eating Disorder” reminds us of the “various social structures that surround (and steady) our eating habits: things like the family dinner and taboos on snacking between meals or eating alone.” In most every culture, the idea of snacking—informally eating alone rather than sitting down to a collective meal—is considered both antisocial and a way to “spoil your appetite.” The British have their afternoon tea, but that’s highly formalized and considered one of the day’s main meals. 

This doesn’t mean that snacking is bad, only that it needs to be treated carefully. These days, it’s actually a necessity, since very few of us get time to sit down to family meals. But we still need to be aware of what the taboo against snacking was meant to prevent: isolation and overeating. 

Be a Munching Master
Snacking is not bad; snacking on donuts and candy is. But by making positive lifestyle choices, you can turn that three o’clock mini-meal into the best thing you do for your diet all day. It’s actually best to eat something small every three to four hours to control blood sugar levels and maintain satiety so you don’t binge later. If you eat lunch at noon, that makes having a 3 p.m. snack a very good idea. Here are some tips for doing so wisely:

  • Take a lunch break! If you don’t get away from work for at least half an hour, your stress levels will continue to rise throughout the day and you’ll be more likely to crave comfort food heavy in sugar and carbohydrates. Also, if you’re eating at your desk, you’re less aware of your fullness level and will tend to eat more and get hungry again more quickly.
  • Share snack time. In fact, take time for all your meals; eat them mindfully and with company. Isolation leads to overeating and negative feelings about body image (which, again, leads to overeating). Having an established snack time also keeps you from grazing all afternoon. Pick a snack buddy in your office or sit down with your kids when they come home from school and prepare a yummy, healthy mini-meal that you can all share. The practice will provide you with exactly what you were seeking (and missing) in all those empty calories: a welcome break from your day and a chance to refuel your body and mind.
  • Keep snacks between 100 and 200 calories. After 2 p.m., your body has less time to burn off the calories that you consume, so you want to keep your afternoon and evening meals light. Eat a good breakfast and lunch, and only use your later meals to maintain energy and satiety, not fill you up.
  • Eat something satisfying. That vending machine bag of Doritos is not going to cut it. You need a blend of protein and fiber to really keep you going. Try carrots and hummus, and apple and peanut butter, granola and low fat yogurt, string cheese and crackers, or dried fruit and nuts (but watch the calories!) for optimal satiety. 

You Can Have It All …
You can have your afternoon nosh and a healthy body. Just follow these guidelines for mindful eating and you’ll keep the pounds off your waistline (and the Doritos off your keyboard).

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