Q: I am a 27-year-old male who CrossFits four times a week and is completely clueless about what role, if any, snacking should play in my diet. The lines seem blurred as to what a snack even is these days. I have bounced back and forth between recommendations, having either two or three large meals or six smaller meals in a given day. I want to get stronger and fitter, but more important, I want to continue eating the clean, nutrient-dense foods that support optimal health.
A: First, it’s important to understand that it’s not the type of food or the timing that qualifies a food as a snack; it’s the purpose and portion size. We’re not talking about those 100-calorie “snack packs” that are filled mostly with air and offer more sugar than they do nutrients. Those don’t really have a place in a clean diet. But smaller versions of your typical whole-food meals might. When it comes to what types, when to eat them and how many snacks are best for you, consider the following:
What does a typical day of meals look like?
If you find that making time for regular meals is just not feasible, you might be better off taking a “fewer, bigger meals with snacks” approach. One way to do that while keeping your total calories reasonable and making sure you’re not compromising nutrient intake is to try intermittent fasting. This typically looks like a cycle of fasting for 16 hours (after dinner, through the night and then into the next morning), followed by an eight-hour feeding window during which you do all your eating for the day. Using a formal diet plan like intermittent fasting can take the emphasis off how many meals you’re eating and help you focus more on total nutrient intake over the whole day.
Is it preworkout or postworkout?
Whether or not you call it a “snack,” it’s important to have some food around workouts so that your body has ample energy and nutrients to draw on while in the box and to refuel for recovery afterward. Before workouts, foods that contain fat and protein are a solid choice because they keep insulin levels steady and allow the body to tap into fat stores to burn for fuel. After workouts, when stimulating insulin can help feed muscles, a snack that is still high in protein but also includes carbohydrates is favorable.
In other words, a hard-boiled egg or palm-size chicken breast with a couple of tablespoons of guacamole is a stellar option to eat an hour before going to the gym. In the postworkout window, a quality protein shake and a banana or sweet potato are more suited. Branched-chain amino acids also can be part of a beneficial and strategic snack before, during or after a workout. If you’re looking for ways to improve recovery, try supplementing with high-quality hypoallergenic BCAAs and a small amount of carbohydrates after hard workouts; they can be used in place of or in addition to protein powder. BCAAs also can be used before or during intense workouts when you have a near-empty stomach.
Is it a rest day, how sore are you and do you plan to work out tomorrow?
Not surprisingly, snacking on rest days might look different than on intense workout days. When muscles are sore and broken down, it’s important to swap high-carbohydrate foods for high-protein anti-inflammatory foods, especially if you’re looking to get back to the gym tomorrow. In other words (assuming you fueled properly after your workout yesterday), stick to vegetables, meat and seafood as much as possible today.
Don’t forget to take your fish oil, fat-soluble vitamins and magnesium; your body will thank you. Meals should provide a nice amount of healthy fats, which will also make it easier to avoid the calls of that sweet tooth. If you find yourself craving snacks on rest days, consider nutrient-dense options like hard-boiled eggs, avocado, nuts and dark chocolate.