The snacking habit has gone mainstream. Surveys find that most children and adults in America snack every day. In fact, the Journal of Nutrition (2010) reported that snacking makes up 25 percent of our total daily calories.
“Since snacking is an integral part of most peoples’ daily diets, make it count,” advises Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Just as nutritious meals are important to fueling your body, so are healthful snacks.
Snacks should furnish you with servings of whole, minimally processed foods that provide essential nutrients, such as whole grains, lean meat, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Whole food, nutrient-rich snacks can include tuna salad with crackers, cottage cheese and fruit, and turkey slices with flatbread.
Snacking on Benefits
Evidence shows that eating frequently throughout the day gives your body an even energy stream and staves off excessive calorie loading. This is especially helpful at night, when hunger can hit if you skimp on calories earlier in the day, prompting you to take in excess calories that can lead to weight gain.
In fact, a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating a high-protein (22 grams), moderate-calorie (200 calories), cheese snack one hour before lunch led participants to eat less at the next meal and throughout the rest of the day, thus, showing that sensible, calorie-controlled snacks–particularly protein-rich ones–can help in weight management.
Regular snackers also tend to eat better overall, according to research findings published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in February 2012. Researchers examined how snacks affected the overall diet quality of 11,209 adults aged 20 years and older who participated in the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Using the Healthy Eating Index-2005, a questionnaire used to measure how people’s diets compare to the federal dietary guidelines, the researchers scored the snack food intake of the participants and found that conscious, regular snacking made a positive impact on health because it increased the consumption of nutrient-rich foods like fruit, whole grains, milk, nuts and seeds.
How Much Should You Snack?
That’s a tricky question, as there are not yet any science-based dietary recommendations regarding the frequency of snacking. However, nutrition experts advise that the ideal amount of calories you need from daily snacks depends on how many calories your body burns to maintain your normal weight and activity levels.
Keep in mind that the more energy you exert, the more calories are needed for energy balance, according to a 2009 position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“If you’re eating three meals a day, eat small snacks that are about 100 calories each, otherwise you will gain weight if you don’t increase your activity,” suggests Gerbstadt. “The best bet is to eat two to three snacks a day that fall within your daily calorie expenditure. Ideally, snacks should supply some important vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fat and protein to fortify an overall healthy diet.”
Creating a Healthy Snack
The best snacks should be made up of real foods like chopped fresh vegetables; fresh, canned or dried fruits; low-fat yogurt, nuts, low-fat cheese, lean poultry, and beans (see 100-Calorie Snack Attacks). Balance the nutrients by combining a small amount of protein, healthy fat, and minimally processed carbs in each snack.
For example, try hummus, peanut butter or a handful of nuts for a supply of protein and healthy fats with a few whole grain crackers, fruit, or veggies like bell peppers or snap peas for a source of healthy carbs.
In addition to making the best choices, eating snacks at consistent times every day will keep your metabolism humming along, as well as stave off cravings for convenient, less nutritious foods.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that any old snack will make a healthful contribution to your day. Avoid snacking on highly processed foods, such as sugar-filled granola and cereal bars, salty chips, and crackers, cookies and muffins made of refined flour and sugars–these choices offer you little more than calories, sugar, fat, and sodium.
Everyday Snack Guide
Ideally, snacks are a nutritious bridge to the next meal. Aim for a 100- to 200-calorie snack two to three hours after a meal.
Mid-morning snack (2 hours after breakfast). Enjoy this snack to keep your blood sugar and energy levels up and maintain your muscle fuel reserves for activity later in the day. Suggestions: 1) One slice whole grain bread and 1 tbsp. peanut butter; 2) One cup whole grain cereal, ½ cup low-fat milk and 1 cup blueberries; 3) One cup instant oatmeal (plain) with 1 cup low-fat milk and ¼ cup chopped nuts
Mid-afternoon snack (2 hours after lunch). Add this snack to boost your energy for workouts late in the day and keep your blood sugar levels stable. It may also help prevent a vending machine run later. Suggestions: 1) Three rye crisp crackers with ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese and a small piece of fruit; 2) ½ whole grain English muffin, 1 tbsp. hummus, ½ cup fresh blueberries; 3) One cup vegetable soup with 3 small whole-grain crackers and ½ applesauce.
Bedtime snack (2 hours after dinner). To appease your hunger after an active day and get a good night’s slip, plan a snack that is higher in protein. “Add a night-time blast of protein to sleep well,” advises Gerbstadt. Suggestions: 1) One slice of lean turkey or low-fat mozzarella cheese with apple slices; 2) One hard-boiled egg 3) Six small whole-grain crackers with 1 ounces of tuna.
100-Calorie Snack Attacks
4 Brazil nuts
10 walnut halves
10 unsalted almonds
6 carrots with 3 tbsp. hummus
30 unsalted pistachios
½ cup shrimp
½ cup edamame
½ cup low-fat cottage cheese
6 medium fresh apricots
2 cups strawberries
1 small pear plus 2 tbsp. fat-free yogurt
1 frozen fruit bar
One 100-calorie granola bar
½ cup sherbert
½ rice milk
– Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D., L.D.N.
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com. (c) 2012 BELVOIR MEDIA GROUP DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.