How to trick your brain into healthy snacking habits

Healthy snacks don’t have to mean sugary, salty munchies. Here’s how to satisfy your mid-afternoon cravings with filling, nutritious options – and actually enjoy them.

We all have them – that sudden craving for a sneaky chocolate biscuit or three, perhaps a packet of crunchy chips or something deliciously deep fried.

But with research showing the average Australian consumes twice the recommended two-and-a-half serves of discretionary foods, the CSIRO has come up with some healthier strategies for satiating those sweet and salty desires.

Rather than suggesting we try to rewire our brains, the researchers have devised an approach to trick your brain into eating healthily – while still getting that dopamine hit that often comes from eating high-energy snacks or meals.

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The idea is to switch our desire-driven choices for nutrient-rich, sensory-matched foods that provide a similar taste and feel, but avoid the blood sugar spike and resulting crash.

Some of the CSIRO’s suggested swaps include switching:

  • An apple muffin for a mandarin
  • Processed deli meat for canned tuna
  • A lamington filled with jam and cream for dried dates
  • Milk chocolate with dried fruit and nuts for muesli with dried fruit
  • Deep-fried potato chips for Edam cheese
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How to avoid mindless snacking

CSIRO Total Wellbeing dietitian Pennie McCoy says when it comes to discretionary foods, it’s the mindless snacks that add up – but that doesn’t mean you have to give up all treats.

“We’re not cutting out all those foods that you really love,” Pennie says.

“Keep those in place, but swap out the mindless snacks or mindless foods for healthier options.”

Pennie says if all your snacks are high in saturated fats, salt and added sugar, they are taking the place of nutrient-dense foods, meaning you’ll miss out on crucial vitamins and minerals.

Unhealthy snacks can also raise the chances of experiencing a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.

Pennie says if you take time to plan you can easily make smarter, but still tasty, dietary choices.

Why you should snack smartly

Often, we focus on the enjoyment we’ll gain from our chosen snack, but dietitian Milly Smith, of Dietitians Australia, says we should also consider what our bodies need.

“We think of a snack as something that’s going to give us a little boost of energy that’s going to tide us over to the next meal, but a lot of the snacks we have available at the moment don’t actually do that very effectively,” Milly says.

For example, Milly says foods that are high in refined carbohydrates, such as chips, absorb quickly into our bloodstream.

But the spike in blood sugar levels does not last long.

“So we get this quick false sense of a boost of energy and then it drops off really quickly.”

Easy healthy snack swap ideas

Milly says it’s not about depriving yourself, but instead making more nutritious choices.

She offers up the following swaps:

  • Rice crackers for a high-fibre biscuit such as a Ryvita, topped with tomato and a slice of cheese
  • A packet of chips for the lower calorie, but still crunchy option of air-popped popcorn
  • Chocolate for chocolate-dipped strawberries, which contain fibre and vitamins
  • Soft drink for infused sparkling water.

Written by Larissa Ham.