Snacking feels like a word loaded with negative connotations, conjuring images of sugar-loaded confectionary or salt-laden savoury products. The food industry knows only too well our weakness for all things sweet, salty and high in fat, and conspires to ensure they are never far from eye shot as we go about our daily lives, an ever present temptation.
Even if you’re up for making a healthier choice, it’s far from clear cut, when snacks marketed as ‘all natural’ or with ‘no added sugar’ can sometimes be as high in sugars as their junk food counterparts. The only difference being that the sugars occur within the naturally sweet ingredients they use rather than the act of adding sugar itself. Take a look at the label and you’ll soon see that there can be spectacular amounts of sugar hidden away in so-called healthy snacks in the form of honey, maple syrup, agave, dried fruits (but read on for more about dates later), and so on. The upshot is the same – it’s still a high sugar snack, just a whole lot more expensive.
As a result, snacks can often end up detracting from the nutritional quality of the diet, when they could actually be a chance to positively enhance it. So what should we be snacking on?
Nuts have to be the archetypal nutritious snack food, loaded with ‘good’ unsaturated fats, plant protein, fibre, and a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols. With credentials like that it’s no wonder that regularly eating nuts slashes the risk of heart disease. And in complete contrast to other high fat snacks, regularly eating nuts is linked to having a slimmer waistline, likely due to their powerful satiating effect. Best of all nuts are handbag and office desk friendly.
Next in the snacking stakes, and the perfect partner to nuts, is dark chocolate (ideally with an 80-85% cocoa content). Cocoa contains powerful naturally occurring plant compounds, known as flavanols, which are now the subject of intensive scientific research for their health benefits, especially for cardiovascular health. In fact, combine a few squares of dark chocolate with a small handful of nuts and you have just about the most cardio-protective snack going. And just like nuts, this is a snack that will comfortably slot in a handbag or tuck into the office desk drawer.
As for other go-to healthy snacks, albeit not always as portable, there are the likes of hummus or home-made bean pate with crudités, peanut butter dip with apple slices, cream cheese with celery sticks, olives, tamari toasted seeds, berries with Greek yoghurt, or guacamole with seeded crackers. The options for DIY healthy snacks are virtually endless, the only limitation being your imagination.
Taken from my best-selling book, the Sirtfood Diet, these ‘bites’ are a firm family favourite that combine a host of health promoting polyphenols into an indulgent treat. Whilst Medjool dates are naturally very high in sugar (a staggering 66%!), eaten in moderation they actually have no noticeable blood sugar raising effects and are actually linked to having less diabetes and heart disease, thanks to their exceptional polyphenol content. This makes them one of the healthiest options for conjuring up a sweet treat.
Makes 15–20 bites
30g dark chocolate (85 per cent cocoa solids), broken into pieces; or cocoa nibs
250g Medjool dates, pitted
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
1–2 tbsp water
Place the walnuts and chocolate in a food processor and process until you have a fine powder.
Add all the other ingredients except the water and blend until the mixture forms a ball. You may or may not have to add the water depending on the consistency of the mixture – you don’t want it to be too sticky.
Using your hands, form the mixture into bite-sized balls and refrigerate in an airtight container for at least 1 hour before eating them. You could roll some of the balls in some more cocoa or desiccated coconut to achieve a different finish if you like. They will keep for up to 1 week in your fridge.