A healthy snack needs these 3 nutrients (plus proper planning)
Are you continuously snacking? Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that Americans have gone from eating an average of 3.9 times a day in the 1970s to eating 5.6 times a day in 2010.
The percentage of daily calories coming from snacks has doubled, with snacking providing about 500 calories a day. If added to meals already consumed, such a snacking habit could lead to weight gain of a pound a week.
Snacking is not inherently bad. In healthy, normal-weight people, snacking seems to help them meet their daily energy needs and even helps incorporate more nutrients into their day.
In contrast, obese children and adults tend to snack on foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. It is not surprising that what you choose to snack on matters.
Anatomy of the ideal snack
The ideal snack contains three key nutrients:
- healthy fat
This snacking trifecta keeps you full longer and stabilises blood sugar levels, helping to keep cravings at bay.
Ideally, you want to choose a combination of whole foods to check off each nutrient.
Yes, a protein bar might have all three nutrients. But prepackaged snacks often contain added sugars, sodium and saturated or trans fats that most of us do not need.
Think of energy bars as your backup plan – but if you must keep some on hand, look for those that are have at least 10 grams of protein and two grams of fibre and are made with real food ingredients.
Instead of packaged protein bars, I recommend centring your snacks on fresh whole produce. You are likely to be not eating enough of this produce: According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 9 per cent of American adults consume enough vegetables, and 12 per cent meet the recommended intake of fruit.
By focusing on produce, you will get some fibre along with water, to help you feel full for fewer calories. Vegetables and fruit also contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are essential for your health and well-being.
On top of all that, you will probably save money by building your own snacks around minimally processed foods.
For fresh vegetables, experiment with different mixes of cherry tomatoes, radishes, celery sticks, carrot sticks or carrot “chips” (cut into slices), cucumber rounds or spears, sugar snap peas, snow peas, bell pepper slices, jicama sticks, and zucchini spears.
For fruit, alternate between apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, frozen or fresh berries, mango, pineapple, melon, and more. You can also have dried fruit such as raisins and dried cranberries and apricots.
Just keep in mind that dried fruit is more calorie-dense, so a portion will be smaller than with fresh fruit. Look for dried fruit that has no added sugar.
You can also add a starch to your snack if you need something more substantial. Keep the fibre high by opting for whole-grain options or crackers made from seeds, beans or lentils.
For the protein source in your snack, choose a handful of nuts or seeds, natural nut butter, roasted chickpeas, edamame, Greek or Icelandic yoghurt, or some pre-portioned cheese. These foods naturally contain fats, and the plant-based options contain some fibre so you will be satisfied longer.
You may be tempted to hit the smoothie bar for a quick snack, but you should know that liquids are less satisfying than solid foods. As a result, you may end up hungrier later. Also check out the nutrition information on your smoothie to make sure it is really a snack rather than a meal in a glass.
How do you know whether you need a snack or are OK to wait for your next meal?
A good rule of thumb is to eat every three or four hours to stabilise blood sugar levels and avoid getting too hungry. Most people need a snack between lunch and dinner because this can be a gap of six or seven hours.
The time of day my clients struggle with the most is that 3pm slump. They have been eating well all day, and then their energy levels crash, and they end up going for a coffee and pastry.
That is comforting in the moment, but having something sugary sets you up for a roller coaster of cravings and can make you feel hungrier soon after. That is why planning your snacks ahead is essential.
Depending on your energy needs and what you are eating the rest of the time, your snacks may need to be smaller or larger. For most people, a snack might be 200 to 300 calories, but someone who is particularly active might need a snack that looks more like a meal and is closer to 500 calories.
If you are trying to lose weight or avoid weight gain, bulk up your snacks with large portions of vegetables, which are low in calories.
Get to know serving sizes for other snack foods. For fruit, a serving is about the size of your fist. Keep your portion of higher calorie foods such as nuts, seeds or trail mix to a small handful and nut butter to about the size of your thumb.
Strategic snack planning
The best way to snack right is to plan ahead.
Figure out what the longer gaps are in your day between meals and then plan and prepare a rotation of three or four snacks for the week, mixing up the types of vegetables and fruit you buy to keep things interesting.
Wash and chop the vegetables and apportion them in small containers, with each containing a source of protein and fat. Store the containers in a bin in your refrigerator so you can grab your prepared snacks quickly when you are hungry or making lunches.
Smart snacking also means you have to plan for the worst, such as when you are stuck in traffic or your meeting ran late and you are ravenous. A healthy snack will help tide you over and keep your head straight so you can make healthy choices at your next meal.
Stash individual servings of nutritious, shelf-stable snacks anywhere you might need them: your car, your desk, your gym bag, you name it. I tell my clients this is their “in case of emergency” snack strategy.
(You might be tempted to keep larger bags of food at work and snack as you desire. I have a client who did not understand why he was gaining weight. It turns out he was grazing out of a container of mixed nuts all afternoon and taking in an extra 1200 calories a day without realising.)
Try not to eat your snack while you are also sending out emails or fiddling on your phone.
Instead, take a few minutes to step away from your work or distraction. Mindless eating can lead to overeating and not feeling satisfied afterward. If you are focused, you can ask yourself if you are even hungry and check in with yourself halfway through the snack to see whether you really need to finish it.
Looking for some concrete ideas for both fresh and shelf-stable snacks? Here are some suggestions.
- Cut vegetables with hummus or other bean dip
- Fresh or frozen blueberries with plain Greek or Icelandic yogurt
- Apple slices and natural almond butter or peanut butter
- Boiled edamame pods with sesame oil and lightly salted
- Orange sections with hard-boiled eggs
- Raspberry chia pudding
- Melon balls with prosciutto
- Apple chips with yogurt dip
- Cucumber slices with smoked salmon
- Pineapple chunks with cottage cheese
- Lentil chips with guacamole
- Whole-grain crackers with canned salmon or tuna
- Pear with kefir
- Brown rice or seed crackers with a cheese stick or pre-portioned cheese
- Homemade energy bites or muffins
- Homemade trail mix with dried cranberries, almonds and sunflower seeds (and dark chocolate chips to help with chocolate cravings)
- Roasted chickpeas
- Roasted edamame
- Pumpkin seeds
- Mixed nuts
- Low-sodium, low-sugar jerky
- Air-popped popcorn mixed with peanuts
Christy Brissette is a registered dietitian, nutrition writer, TV contributor and president of 80TwentyNutrition.com. Follow her on Twitter @80twentyrule.