So, you’ve dusted off your running shoes, joined the gym, and started watching deadlift tutorials on YouTube. You’re all set, right? Well, kind of. Sadly, bodies aren’t built on good intentions. Nor are they built on endless weightlifting sessions and protein shakes. Nor, for that matter, are they built on starving yourself. As bodybuilder Vince Gironda once said, “Bodybuilding is 80% nutrition.”
And while you might not be looking to bulk like Arnie, the same rule applies to almost every fitness goal. Without the correct fuel in your system, you’ll slow recovery, rob yourself of energy, restrict growth, and increase your risk of injury. All of which will derail your fitness plans before they’ve really got going.
Often the most common problem is the same for fitness pros as it is for the rest of us: snacks. You can be as strict as you like at mealtimes, but in-between is usually a nutritional vacuum, a place where healthy snacks just don’t exist.
For most of us, snacks – crisps, biscuits, pastries – are what undo all our good intentions. But get those in-betweener foods right and not only will they satisfy a hunger pang, they’ll help you achieve fitness and body composition targets, rather than make them harder.
With the expert input of Jo Travers, registered dietitian and author of The Low-Fad Diet, and Daniel O’Shaughnessy (aka The Naked Nutritionist), we compiled a fool-proof guide to what to eat, and when – whatever your goals.
Healthy Snacks For Runners
“You don’t want to be running on a full stomach, so the timing of this one is as important as what you’re eating,” says Travers. “A low-GI carbohydrate-based snack like wholemeal pitta and humous a couple of hours before you start, means a steady drip-feed of glucose into your blood stream throughout your run.”
Not a pitta person? O’Shaughnessy has a few other options. “Honey is a high-carb food which helps maintain muscle glycogen (also known as stored carbohydrates) which gives runners the boost they need when they need it most. And Greek yoghurt with banana, nuts and sprinkle of granola is perfect post-run fare, as it has both protein and carbs to aid recovery, meaning you’ll reduce inflammation, and be able to get out on the track again the next day.”
Healthy Snacks For The Office
We’ve all had the 11am slump. And the pre-lunch hunger pangs. And the 3pm fatigue. And the 5pm dinner-anticipation cravings. Travers has some recommendations for whenever hunger strikes. “If you’re sitting at your desk all day, you don’t want anything too sugary as the sugar won’t get burned off, and will likely cause a sugar spike, which is always followed by a crash. A small handful of nuts, yogurt or fruit will work well.”
O’Shaughnessy agrees: “An apple with nuts offers healthy carbs to give you energy, and satiating protein and fibre to keep you fuelled to the next meal. Not only that, but the omega fats in the nuts will help boost brain function, helping you outsmart deadlines.
“A dark chocolate and sea salt bar is another safe – and delicious – bet. Opting for dark chocolate means you’ll get your sugar fix, but with less of the white stuff than other varieties of chocolate, or a biscuit. Not only that, but dark chocolate also has a stimulating effect on the brain, while the salt content will help satisfy your flavour responses.”
Healthy Snacks For Weight Loss
“Even if you want to lose weight, you’ll need nutrients, so don’t skip snacks, especially if you’re hungry,” Travers advises. “Something nutrient-dense is best. Don’t go for a 90kcal cereal bar that’s mostly air (or sugar). It won’t fill you up, and is most often a waste of calories. It’s better to choose something like a small portion of bean soup. Not only are beans absolutely loaded with satiating fibre, you’ll get a great hit of iron, which helps regulate blood and brain function. For something on the go choose a cereal bar with plenty of nuts, fruit and oats to keep your blood sugar even, preventing crashes.”
O’Shaughnessy opts for some flavourful alternatives, suggesting protein shakes. “These aren’t just for the gym. A good shake can actually keep you full, keep cravings at bay, and nourish your body – especially if you’re training.” Just make sure not to go overboard, and to mix it with water, not milk – they aren’t calorie-free, after all, and some varieties contain more sugar than others.
“Seaweed thins are also a simple, low-carb, salty snack that supplies iodine – an essential nutrient for thyroid function, the gland that influences metabolism and protein synthesis in the body.”
Healthy Snacks For Concentration
“Carbs are important for concentration because the brain runs on glucose, and it’s a hungry organ,” Travers says. “Low-GI foods are good because they ensure a steady delivery of energy. Make sure you keep properly hydrated too, as even mild dehydration can affect cognition.”
The good news is that the best snacks for focus also happen to be delicious. “Blueberries are proven to boost concentration and memory due to their plentiful antioxidants stimulating the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain,” says O’Shaughnessy. “And a well-fed brain is an efficient brain.” Just don’t see off a pack of blueberries in one if you’re trying to avoid a sugar spike, which would have the opposite affect.
“Dark Chocolate is also just very good for you. It contains caffeine, and also theobromine for short-term focus. Both improve blood flow to the brain. Best of all, the caffeine content is much lower than a coffee, so you’ll avoid the jitters.”
Healthy Pre-Gym Snacks
“If you’re trying to bulk up, you’ll require extra energy. The aim is to go for nutrient-dense food rather than sugar, which will likely cause abdominal weight gain rather than healthy muscular weight gain,” says Travers. “Things like nuts and avocados are high in calories from good fats, while oily fish is high in protein and omega 3. A smoked salmon and avocado sandwich is easy and ticks the boxes.”
O’Shaughnessy has his own take: “Porridge is simple, but an excellent source of slow-release carbs, and fibre. Not only will this help keep you full, it’ll keep you energised throughout your session, with balanced blood sugar, and no immediate sugar rush, or crash. Ideal for a solid training session.”
Another option? “A homemade protein shake with nuts, protein powder, oats, banana, flaxseed and almond milk,” says O’Shaughnessy. “If you have time before training, this is a great calorie-dense snack. You’ve got protein from the milk, nuts and powder, as well as fibre and useful amounts of sugar from the banana. Essentially, there’s everything you need here, in the ideal quantities.”
Healthy Snacks For High-Intensity Training
If sprints, powerlifting, or HIIT sessions are your thing, it’s important to be able to release energy in short, sustained bursts. Here’s how. “An isotonic or hypertonic drink can’t be beaten for instant energy,” says Travers, “But don’t take it if you aren’t training, or you’ll quickly crash. During exercise, however, it’s one of the fastest ways of getting energising glucose into the blood stream.”
Bulletproof coffee, is O’Shaughnessy’s choice. “The bulletproof trend argues that adding fat to your coffee helps boost brain function, helping you lose weight, and stay energised. To get involved, take your Americano, and blend in MCT oil and butter. I use it when intermittent fasting, or as a natural pre-workout.”
“Eggs are also great. They’re rich in leucine, an amino acid which can stimulate the production of energy in cells. They’re also rich in B vitamins which play a key role in energy production. Ideal hard-boiled for their benefits.”
Healthy Snacks For Better Sleep
Up all night for all the wrong reasons? “There’s some evidence that a high-fibre diet can improve your sleep, possibly because of it’s moderating effects on blood sugar or because fibre feeds bacteria in the gut which can influence sleep,” says Travers. “Any kind of whole grain, beans, fruit or veg will contain a good amount of fibre.”
O’Shaughnessy has some specifics for your late-night snack. “Banana with peanut butter – both are rich in tryptophan, which turns to serotonin and then the sleep hormone melatonin. Banana also is a great source of carbs which is vital for melatonin to cross from the blood stream to the brain before sleep.
“Also, pumpkin seeds with half an avocado. This mix is rich in magnesium which is generally deficient in our diets. Not only will it help your mind relax, it gives your nervous system a boost too, which is ideal before bed when our bodies recalibrate. If you can’t get hold of either ingredient, magnesium supplements are a great pre-bed alternative.”