Good choices can get you through the 4 o'clock munchies

"Four o'clock is my trouble time ... I'm starved and eat anything and everything in sight." "I'm so good at breakfast and lunch, but I'm so bad in the afternoon ... M&M's are my downfall." "I try hard not to snack at work, but when I get home I immediately open the refrigerator and eat right from the shelves!"

"Thou shalt not snack" is the Eleventh Commandment self-imposed by many athletes who think something is bad about 1) getting hungry in the afternoon and 2) resolving that hunger by eating a snack.

Snacking seems sinful, wrong and induces guilt. Yet the same people who try so hard to refrain from snacking at 4 in the afternoon commonly betray their vows and succumb a little later.

If you repeatedly try to deny the 4 o'clock munchies, my advice is: Don't even try to deny your hunger. Simply acknowledge it and enjoy a snack. Why "hold off" from eating at 4 (when you are only slightly hungry) to confront a ravenous hunger later on? You are going to eat the calories sooner or later, so you might as well eat them sooner.

Hunger is not bad nor wrong. It is a normal physiological function. You can expect to get hungry every 4 to 5 hours. For example, if you eat lunch at noon, you'll likely be hungry by 4 and should respond appropriately by eating something.

If you postpone eating until you can't stand the hunger any more, you'll inevitably over-eat "the wrong foods" ... and that's where snacking gets the bad rap. The problem is not snacking, but getting too hungry.

When you get too hungry, you may crave sweets (or fats), and lack the presence of mind needed to make wise food choices. The solution to craving sweets is not banning M&Ms but rather eating more breakfast and lunch to prevent hunger.

Snacking is important even if you want to lose weight. A planned afternoon snack (100 - 200 calories) will prevent extreme hunger and reduce the risk of blowing your diet. (Even dieters should never feel ravenous.)

Denial of snacks can lead to frenzied overeating and the sabotaging thought, "I'd better pack in these snacks now because this is my last chance to treat myself before I get back on my diet."

You'd have been better off simply giving yourself permission to eat a "diet portion" of your desired snack. And remember, there is, indeed, a diet portion of any food -- even M&Ms.

Recommended snacks
If you eat wholesome meals and want to snack on, let's say, a chocolate chip cookie, keep in mind that you need not eat a perfect diet to have a good diet. A treat can appropriately fit into an overall well-balanced diet.

However, if you eat treats instead of appropriate meals, you should limit the snacks to nourishing choices: bagels, yogurt, banana, raw carrots, etc. and abide by the following dietary guidelines:

  • 10% of your calories can appropriately come from refined sugar (approx. 200 - 300+ calories sugar/day).

  • 25% of your calories can appropriately come from fat (approx. 50 - 85 grams fat/day).

  • Salt should be restricted only if you have high blood pressure (most athletes have low blood pressure).

    Hence, without feeling guilty, you can enjoy moderate portions of controversial snacks, such as peanut butter nabs (high fat), oatmeal raisin cookies (high sugar and fat) and pretzels (high sodium).

    Sports snacks
    The best sports snacks are rich in carbohydrates: preferably starches (bagels, English muffins, cold cereal [by the handful right out of the box, or in a bowl with milk], hot cereal, pretzels, lowfat crackers, leftover pasta, noodle soups, microwaved potato) and natural sugars (juice, fruit).

    Refined sugars (jelly beans, licorice, soda pop, hard candies) will also fuel the muscles but they lack the "spark plugs" you need to enhance your sports performance. Lowfat snacks are OK in moderation: granola bars, muffins, thick-crust pizza.

    Just be sure your overall diet adequately fuels your muscles with carbs, not simply fills your tummy with fat.

    Outrageous snacks
    If it's an ice cream sundae or insanity, I recommend that you satisfy your hankerings for even belt-busting snacks by indulging at lunchtime. By spending your lunchtime calories on the treat, you may not even blow your calorie budget for the day, and you'll certainly have incentive to train harder that afternoon.

    You also won't destroy your health with this occasional junk food lunch, as long as your overall diet tends to be wholesome.

    Vending machine snacks
    Vending machine cuisine offers tough choices. Tucked between the lackluster choices, you may be able to find pretzels, peanuts, juice, yogurt, and even an apple. The good part is the snacks are limited in size (i.e., only two cookies instead of the whole bagful) and generally provide only 200 - 400 calories.

    When trying to decide between fatty or sugary choices (i.e., chips or chocolate), remember that sugar will at least fuel your muscles; fat will just clog the arteries. Afterwards, brush your teeth ...

    Planned snacks
    Your best bet is to bring in your own snacks so that you can avoid the vending machine. Keep a box of zwieback, dry cereal (oat squares, chex), raisins, breakfast bars or microwaveable lite popcorn in your desk drawer. Or tuck an apple, juice box or banana into your pocket as you leave for work or school.

    These preferable choices will be ready and waiting for the 4 o'clock munchies. Eat them in good health, and enjoy your higher energy.

    Copyright: Nancy Clark, MS, RD

    Nancy Clark, RD, nutritionist at Boston-area's SportsMedicine Associates, designs food plans that help athletes be successful with food. Her bestselling "Sports Nutrition Guidebook" offers additional advice. It is available via or by sending $23 to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston St. #205, Brookline MA 02467.

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