When you snack, you can fill in nutritional gaps, boost your intake of fruits and vegetables, keep your mood on an even keel, and help with appetite and weight control.
Every diet offers room for treats, and there's no reason to feel guilty about enjoying one
"There's even evidence that spreading calories out in frequent mini-meals and snacks requires less insulin, which can reduce your risk of developing diabetes," says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut. "Snacking helps you avoid the waning of energy that comes with consuming large meals." But when it comes to reaping all of these health benefits, every bite counts.
Snacking's reputation hasn't always been so rosy. "Most of the foods that have traditionally dominated as snack foods are not the healthiest choices -- they provide a lot of calories without much nutrition," says Cynthia Sass, R.D., M.P.H., a Tampa, Florida-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Unfortunately, many people choose snacks that derail their efforts to enhance their health -- by grabbing a handful of candy at a colleague's desk, a cookie from the coffee shop, or a bag of chips from the vending machine. And that doesn't include the calories we might drink: People often swig high-calorie beverages with their snacks -- and don't compensate for those calories by eating less later.
Besides failing to make a major nutritional contribution to your diet, sweet or starchy high-calorie snacks are easy to overindulge in because they taste good and are often readily accessible. Eating them is often a mindless transaction; we consume the food simply because it's there. In a study at Pennsylvania State University, researchers found that when they increased the portion size of packaged potato chips on five separate days, people naturally ate more without realizing it, consuming an additional 143 calories per day. CookingLight.com: Super snacking -- your guide to smart noshing
"The danger in snacking is that it can add extra calories to your day," Katz says. "By consuming 100 calories per day above what your body needs to maintain its weight, you can gain 10 pounds in a year." That's why it's important to budget calories for snacks, perhaps by shaving some calories from your meals. If you normally consume 1,800 calories per day, you might divide that into 500 calories for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then allow yourself two 150-calorie snacks.
Calorie control is key, particularly because people often overestimate how many calories they need in a snack. "What they eat may be closer to a small meal," Sass says. For example, 400 calories -- the amount in an average single-serving frozen meal -- is nearly equal to the number of calories in a candy bar and a cola.
Many food manufacturers have caught on to consumers' desire for healthful snacks they can grab quickly and have begun to stock grocery-store cases, convenience stores, and airports with precut fruits and veggies, nuts, and calorie-controlled snacks in small, handy packages. You can also pack your own. On any given morning, Katz might pack a zip-top bag with whole-grain cereal, fresh and dried fruits, nonfat yogurt, baby carrots, or a mix of nuts and seeds that he can eat periodically throughout the day. CookingLight.com: Tour the Cooking Light staff's snack drawers
The timing of your snack can also help keep your diet on a healthful track. "The hungrier you are when you're snacking, the more likely you are to overeat," says Catherine Christie, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition programs at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. "If you go too long between meals, you can get low on energy and become overly hungry." Reach for a snack before you become ravenous, and you're likely to eat less. CookingLight.com: 16 superior snacks
Ultimately, your snacking habits should follow the same formula as your overall diet -- all things in moderation. Every diet offers room for treats, and there's no reason to feel guilty about enjoying one. In fact, Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., a nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, recommends saving 10 percent of your daily calories and using them for snacks that you really want. "Sometimes it's not worth it to fight what you crave," he says. "Eating well is all about eating the right foods and eating a variety of foods the right way, and that's where snacking fits in," Ayoob says.
If your energy levels are flagging...
Solution: Consuming caffeine -- in the form of coffee or tea -- can help boost energy and alertness. Adding a bit of sugar and low-fat milk -- if you prefer -- adds only about 50 calories. Eating foods that blend complex carbohydrates and lean protein can also provide energy. Complex carbohydrates provide readily available fuel for your body, while protein increases the brain's dopamine levels, thereby boosting alertness. Healthful choices include a small handful of dried fruit and nuts, whole-grain crackers with a slice of cheese or a hard-boiled egg, or yogurt topped with a tablespoon of granola.
If mealtime is several hours away, but you're hungry now...
Solution: For a snack with staying power, eat something that mixes fiber and protein. (This is also a good strategy to tide you over until morning if you become hungry before bedtime.) In a study at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, researchers found that when nighttime snackers developed the habit of eating cereal with milk 90 minutes after dinner, they reduced their total daily calorie intake and increased their chances of losing weight, compared with those who ate whatever they wanted. The cereal's fiber and protein combination kept them full -- and prevented less mindful eating that can accompany evening routines. Other good hunger-curbing pairings include carrot sticks with hummus or black bean dip, or a slice of multigrain bread spread with a tablespoon of reduced-fat peanut butter.
If you need a pre- or post-workout pick-me-up...
Solution: Before a workout, consuming complex carbohydrates -- such as fruit or whole-grain cereal -- will provide your body energy for exercise. Afterward, eat high-quality protein, such as low-fat yogurt or whole-grain cereal -- particularly if you performed resistance exercises. A weight workout will stimulate the growth of muscle cells, which depend on protein. And, as always, consume plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercising.
If a stressful situation makes you feel an irrepressible urge to munch...
Solution: In this instance, your desire for food may be hard-wired: Research from the University of California, San Francisco, found that consuming food -- particularly items that contain sugar and fat -- appears to calm the body's hormonal response to stress. But before you head to the vending machine, take a series of deep breaths; delay reaching for food for 15 minutes; drink a hot beverage such as tea, which can be soothing; and distract yourself by calling a friend or taking a walk. If you still feel like eating, then you're probably hungry. Eat a smart snack that fits your craving -- a small piece of chocolate with a glass of skim milk, for example.
What's Your Snacking Style?
The desire for a snack can involve a hankering for a particular taste (like something sweet) or a yen for a texture (like something crunchy). But don't put too much stock in the notion that what you crave is something your body truly needs. "That's just not reliable," says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut. "Very few people these days are sugar or salt deficient, but those remain the things we crave. It's difficult to separate what's physiological from what's psychological, and it's not all that useful anyway."
A better strategy: Consider what taste or sensory sensation you really desire before reaching for a snack.
If you crave something sweet
Try: Raisins, dried cherries, or fresh apple slices dipped in melted dark chocolate chips
If you crave something salty
Try: Almonds, whole-grain crackers, brown rice cakes, or a small can of vegetable juice
If you crave something crunchy
Try: A handful of high-fiber cereal, a spoonful of peanut butter on celery or apple slices, pickles, or microwave popcorn
If you crave something creamy
Try: Low-fat pudding, whipped yogurt, or flavored oatmeal E-mail to a friend
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Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines.