It's 11 o'clock. Breakfast was a good two hours ago, lunch still a distant prospect. Time for... what, exactly? A biscuit, perhaps. A piece of fruit, or a cereal bar. And what about later, as the hour hand inches to 3pm, then 4pm? Time for tea, and something sweet: a chocolate bar, a pastry, a piece of cake? Five o'clock? Listen to the rattle of crisp packets being ripped open, their various aromas dispersed by office air conditioning: prawn cocktail, Thai chilli, barbecue chicken.
The Brits are Europe's biggest snackers. Globally, the only people who can trump us are the Americans. According to reports, the UK market for savoury snacks is on course to reach £2.61bn by 2014. And – in a way – it's no surprise. Snacking, like smoking in Paris or cycling in Amsterdam, is ingrained in our culture. It's as British as Sunday roast, and fish and chips. Think of "elevenses", of afternoon tea, of "fourses". Three meals a day? Pfff. When have we ever eaten that?
There's a problem with all this eating, though. We're not just Europe's biggest snackers. We're also Europe's, well, biggest. Obesity rates are at record highs. Some 65 per cent of men – and 55 per cent of women – are classified as overweight. We might be used to munching on something every few hours – but it's not doing our calorie-consumption any good.
So what's the solution? Stick to that old French mantra of eating three times a day? Health advice would indicate not: indeed, eating little and often – "grazing" throughout the day – is increasingly seen as the healthier option. It ensures sugar is released into the blood slowly and means that levels of fatty acids remain stable. And, according to research published by Edinburgh University, those who do so are more likely to get their five-a-day, and less likely to gorge themselves at one particular time.
Snacking, then, is not the problem. The problem is our choice of nibble. "We know how to have a healthy, balanced meal but not a healthy, balanced snack," observes nutritionist Stephanie Moore. Offender No 1 is the common crisp. The most popular snack in the UK – a reported £1.4 billion packets are sold each year – they are high in fat, salt and, all too often, artificial flavourings. Then there's our penchant for the high-fat, high-sugar chocolate bar. Fancy a small bar of Dairy Milk? That'll be 255 calories, 27.8 grams of sugar and 14.6 grams of fat. Even options marketed as healthier alternatives – cereal bars, for instance, or rice cakes – can harbour unhealthy amounts of salt and sugar.
But it doesn't have to be this way. "Snacking is a good thing," argues the dietician Gaynor Bussell. "The trick is to see it as an opportunity to do yourself some good – to get some fibre, some vitamins and minerals."
Eating the right foods means that snacking won't just be about filling a hole. So try to substitute your daily crisps, chocolate and cakes for something that's just as fulfilling, and considerably more nutritious.
Replace crisps with nuts
"Crisps have the worst combination for weight gain," says Moore. "They are high in both starchy sugars and fat. They're addictive, thanks to all the salt – and most packs are bigger than they used to be." Instead, Moore recommends opting for a bag of nuts. Not only are they readily available, but they are one of the healthiest foods you can eat: "There's really no excuse not to have them. If you can buy a bag of crisps, you can buy some nuts."
The best bet, of course, is not the roasted, salted variety – though these still pack a good nutritional punch – but the natural one (with skins on if possible). Almonds, says Moore, are particularly good, thanks to their high levels of protein and fibre. Other tree nuts – walnuts, pistachios and brazils – are great, too. "Walnuts are especially high in antioxidants, and I love pistachios because they give your hands something to do while you eat them," says Dr Stuart Flanagan, GP and resident doctor on Radio 1. Try to keep a mix handy at home and at work – that way, when your tummy starts rumbling, you won't reach straight for the crisps.
Satisfy your sweet tooth
Everyone likes the occasional treat, but a sweet tooth needn't translate into a full-blown Haribo habit. "Dried fruit is perfect to store in the car or in your handbag," says Dr Flanagan. "It won't go off and it's much healthier than most sweets." Another good option is grapes: "I see a lot of people trying to lose weight sensibly, and quite often the hardest part is the space between meals. I recommend having a few grapes because they're quite low in calories – likewise an apple or a banana would do. Even a few cherry tomatoes work nicely."
Not all chocolate was created equal
"If someone is on a diet or trying to lose weight I recommend that they don't consume more than 5 per cent of their daily calorie allowance in snacks," says Bussell. "But if it's just a matter of maintaining your weight while living a healthy lifestyle, you can have up to 10 per cent." At 200 calories, that means that snacking doesn't always need to be about scrimping. In moderation, the odd bit of high-quality chocolate is a perfectly acceptable choice. "Most chocolate bars on the high street are a massive no-no," explains Moore. "They are loaded with vegetable fats and trans fats, and produce a major sugar rush. All the nutritious stuff – the antioxidants and so on – is in the cocoa, and commercial chocolate tends to have a very low cocoa content."
That said, there are plenty of ways to get a chocolate fix without loading up on fat and sugar: "Have a bit of good quality chocolate, and there is an actual benefit. If you're not used to the taste, start at a bar that's 45 per cent cocoa and work your way up. Our palates change very quickly. Even better, combine it with a handful of almonds for a more balanced snack."
Avoid 'diet' foods
Just because something's low-fat – or low-calorie – doesn't mean it's a good choice of snack. All too often "diet" products – from yoghurts to breakfast bars – are packed full of excess sugar and refined carbohydrate, which send your energy levels soaring – and then, inevitably, crashing. Bussell explains: "A lot of people have problems controlling their blood sugar. The solution is to look for things that are low on the glycaemic index, which will allow for a slower release of energy." She recommends having a slice of wholewheat toast with peanut butter or some malted loaf, both of which offer a sustained energy boost. Likewise, Dr Flanagan advises munching on a pack of baby carrots with hummus or even a portion of tuna fish. "You want something that's going to keep you going, without that feeling of deprivation. Tuna's great because the protein fix means that it offers a long-lasting boost."
Restock your biscuit tin
On first inspection, the biscuit, that standard of teatimes across the country, doesn't look like the most promising of candidates. A single Jammy Dodger has 6.8 grams of sugar – 8 per cent of the recommended daily amount. Opt for a custard cream, and prepare to get through 8.5 per cent of your daily saturated fat allowance. But that doesn't mean your tin need lie empty. Moore gives biscuits the thumbs-up – so long as they are the right sort. "Oat cakes are great, and oat-based cookies are OK, too. If you are buying them ready-made, they may well have some flour and sugar, but they are a superior alternative."
Even better would be to make your own: Moore recommends home-made oat cookies, sweetened with fruit sugars or dried fruit.
Rethink your drinks
Health isn't just about what you're eating. The liquids you consume are just as important. The worst offenders are the plethora of fizzy sodas – diet or not – available in every canteen, corner shop and supermarket.
"If they're not overloaded with sugar, they're full of artificial sweeteners which are just as bad, if not worse," says Moore, who recommends drinking plain water or herbal tea instead.
If that sounds too dull to countenance, Dr Flanagan suggests popping a couple of slices of cucumber or lemon into your water jug – that way the water picks up a hint of flavour. Low-fat milk, or almond milk are both good options, too, when drunk in addition to water: "Young women tend to be deficient in calcium, so to have a source of it in your diet is definitely a good thing."
As for your daily cuppa, breathe easy. Though both Dr Flanagan and Moore recommend opting for green tea over a regular brew, it's not all bad news for tea and coffee: "In moderation, they're fine," says Dr Flanagan. "Two cups a day is not a problem at all – though you wouldn't want to have too many."