Can snacks be part of a healthy eating plan? Let’s face it. Most people enjoy snacks. If the snack contributes to one’s overall energy and nutrient needs without adding a lot of calories, what’s the harm, right?
According to a report from the NPD Group, a market research firm, fruit is the number one choice in America for snacks. This is good news. Chocolate was next in line. Ok, a small amount of dark chocolate can be heart healthy. Potato chips came in third. This choice is not as gratifying as the first two because it is easy to eat chips mindlessly and end up eating an entire bag with few nutrients to show for the effort (or lack, thereof).
Results from a study in 2011 attribute the rise in calorie intake in our country to eating more often. This suggests that snacks play a role in overeating, which then encourages weight gain.
It doesn’t look good for snacks, until one considers another factor, that of timing.
Researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle used data from a study with overweight and obese postmenopausal women, 50 to 75 years of age. This study showed that women who had mid-morning snacks lost less weight than those women who did not snack before lunch.
The researchers suggested that eating a snack too close to a main meal may result in fewer pounds lost when dieting. On the other hand, long intervals between meals might be better handled with a snack to relieve hunger and prevent overeating at the next meal.
Interestingly, other findings showed that the women who ate more than two snacks each day consumed more fiber than the women who ate fewer in-between meal snacks. And afternoon snackers consumed more fruits and veggies than those who refrained. So there can be a health benefit to indulging between meals.
Everybody likes snacks from kids to teens to adults. Here are a few guidelines.
- Consider when your next meal is. If the meal is less than 30 minutes away, have a glass of water or a cup of tea. If you need something to chew, have a small salad. When hunger strikes and the meal is one to two hours away, keep the snack around 100 calories or less. Baby carrots, cucumber slices, and green pepper sticks can be prepared ahead and kept in the fridge.
- Try to satisfy the textures you crave in a healthy way. For example, if a crunchy or salty food is what you crave, select whole grain crackers. Or try an apple with peanut butter for combo of textures and added protein. A small handful of nuts adds protein and also contributes fiber and healthy fat. Be sure to stop at a small handful, though.
- Low-fat yogurt and small portions of cheese are satisfying snacks. Check out the lower fat versions of cheese in the diary case.
- If you really want a sweet, chewy snack, and it is some time before the next meal, choose snack or energy bars with about five grams of fiber and protein, and no more than two or three grams of unsaturated fat.
For more suggestions, visit the American Heart Association for tips on satisfying different snacking tastes and for eating on the go. The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics has tips for families and teens.