Munching on a bowl of popcorn during a movie. Grabbing some chips and dip at a party. Picking up a candy bar at the gas station on the way home from work.
In today’s world, eating isn’t limited to three square meals a day. Snack foods are all around us. But as with the meals we eat, snacks can add up quickly in terms of calories and pounds.
Over the past 30 years, the percentage of adults who snack has increased from 59 percent to 90 percent, and the number of snacks people eat has increased from one to more than two per day. In fact, for many of us, almost 25 percent of daily calories comes from snacks.
I’m not saying you should never snack. But you also don’t want to eat a whole box of cookies or a whole bag of potato chips in one sitting. The first steps to healthier snacking are understanding why we eat between meals and knowing which snacks will help support our individual health goals.
Why we snack matters
There are two reasons why we snack:
- In response to hunger
- In response to environmental stimuli, such as watching TV, without being hungry
Healthy people tend to snack only when they’re hungry, and they choose snacks that are rich in carbohydrates and low in fat, like fruit. People who are obese or otherwise unhealthy tend to snack in response to environmental stimuli, including watching TV. This type of snacking is unhealthy.
We’re still learning how much snacking has to do with obesity, but one thing is clear: Snacking when you aren’t actually hungry has been associated with weight gain and won’t help you feel satisfied.
When it comes to snacking, practice mindful eating. Think about the reason you’re reaching for a snack, and be honest with yourself. Are you eating because you’re truly hungry or because you walked by your co-worker’s candy dish?
I visit with people every day who don’t realize how much extra sodium, sugar, and fat they consume until we sit down and discover incidents of mindless eating. Unfortunately, not too many people bring fresh fruit or vegetables to share at the office. Usually, the community snacks are junk food.
Junk food is junk for a reason
Overall, the most popular snacks are the ones that are worst for us: sugar-sweetened beverages and savory snacks such as chips and crackers, followed by candies, cakes, pastries, pies, and ice cream — junk food.
While these snacks are tasty, they also are energy-dense (high in calories per weight) and low in nutrients. In fact, these foods should not be considered snacks at all; instead, we should think of them as occasional treats.
The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which we often recommend to patients seeking a heart-healthy lifestyle, suggests limiting treats to five per week. Often, patients are worried they can never have ice cream or birthday cake again, but that’s not the case — as long as they eat treats in moderation. If you choose to eat a treat, consider it one of your five for the week.
It can be difficult to change the eating habits many of us grew up with – having dessert each night as a reward for eating our dinner or reaching for a quick, processed snack when we’re running late. That’s why dietitians like me and organizations such as It’s Time Texas! educate communities about how to control overeating and mindless eating and choose healthier snack options.
Healthy snacks provide a low amount of calories and are a good source of vitamins and minerals. They also can fill nutrient gaps that we might otherwise miss in our diets.
How to choose a healthy snack
Look for snacks with fewer than 200 calories containing protein (0 to 10 grams) or fiber (1 to 3 grams) without exceeding 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Here are a few examples of my favorite:
- Pre-sliced and pre-portioned vegetables, such as cucumbers, broccoli, carrots, or peppers
- Fruit, such as apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, or raisins
- Cheese sticks
- Lightly-salted or unsalted almonds, seeds, or peanuts
- Granola-type bars that are low in saturated fat and calories
- 1 medium peach/nectarine
- 3 plums
- 18 grapes (about 3/4 cup)
- Cheese stick (about an ounce)
- 1/2 cup of plain nonfat yogurt with 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries, topped with low-calorie whipped topping or a sprinkle of sugar
- 1 small whole-wheat pita with 1 tablespoon of hummus and 1 tablespoon of fresh-chopped mango
- Granola-type bar (read the label for total calories and saturated fat)
- One large banana (a bit shy of 150 calories)
- Multigrain tortilla chips (15 chips or 1 ounce)
- Almonds (22 nuts)
- Nut butter on crackers (1 tablespoon plus about six whole-grain crackers)
- A 90-calorie yogurt with 1 tablespoon of wheat germ
- Half a small avocado with 10 to 15 tortilla chips
- 20 pecan halves
- 1/2 cup of tuna salad (made with light mayonnaise) and six whole-wheat crackers
- One small whole-wheat pita with 1 ounce of low-fat feta cheese and 1/2 cup of chopped tomatoes and cucumber
- 1 ounce of smoked salmon on a mini or thin bagel
- 1/2 cup of spicy red pepper hummus with 1/2 cup of snap peas or carrots
- 1 slice of whole-grain bread with 1 tablespoon of almond butter
- All-natural fruit leather (check the label for total calories and no added sugars)
Snacking can be a healthy part of a balanced, nutritious diet. Just make sure you’re snacking because you’re hungry, not because you’re bored or because your favorite TV show is on. If you could use some help making healthier dietary choices, request an appointment to discuss a nutrition plan that works for you.