When you think of snacks, you may think of unhealthy foods like chips, cookies, or candy bars. While these vending machine foods are common snack choices for many Americans, they provide us nothing in the way of nutrition. With just a little planning, we can make snacks that are convenient, tasty, and good for us.
The Benefits of Snacking
While snacking might get a bad rap, it can actually help us stay healthy. Of course, it all depends on the choices we make, not only for our snack but throughout the day as well.
You may have heard that it is better to eat six mini-meals throughout the day rather than three larger meals. This may be true for some people. Research shows that when you eat regularly throughout the day, your metabolism stays elevated, so you are less likely to store calories as fat. It can also lead to more stable blood sugar and energy levels compared to a diet that includes only one or two large meals a day.
Eating more frequently can also help curb hunger for those trying to lose weight. Reducing calories can often mean struggling with hunger between meals. By eating smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day, you may be able to avoid getting overly hungry and be more likely to stick with your weight loss plan.
On the other hand, eating more often isn’t necessarily better for everyone. If you have trouble sticking to small portions and your mini-meals or snacks turn into large meals, or if your snacking turns into all-day grazing, you may be doing more harm than good.
Who needs snacks?
Snacks aren’t just for kids! People of all ages can benefit from healthy snacking. Snacks are a great way for anyone to reach his or her nutrition needs. Listed below are some groups who could most benefit from snacks in addition to meals:
- People who have reduced appetite and/or nutrient needs: small children, elderly individuals, pregnant women, people who are sick and/or undergoing treatment for diseases like cancer
- Anyone trying to lose or maintain weight
- Athletes or anyone who wants to maximize results from an exercise/training program
When should I have a snack?
Everyone is different. Some people do quite well on the standard three meals a day, while others may need to eat smaller amounts more often.
Listen to your body. Do you find that you get hungry about the same time every day? A good rule of thumb is to try to eat something at least every 4-5 hours. But since everyone is different, it’s important to tune into your body, and learn to recognize true hunger and satiety signals.
Most people eat for many reasons that don’t always include actual hunger, so before you reach for a snack, consider why you are eating. If you find yourself getting hungry within just a couple of hours of eating a meal, it might be a good idea to evaluate your meal choices. Make sure your meals include a good amount of protein and fiber. Limit foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates. Lastly, consider your activity level. If you are very active, you may need to eat a greater quantity or more frequently than those who are less active.
After you’ve evaluated your meals, you may want to plan a snack. Think about when you find yourself getting hungry or your energy waning during the day. It might be mid-morning or later in the afternoon. Many of us have experienced that mid-afternoon slump.
Whether it’s stress, tiredness, or actual hunger; this is a common time for a trip to the vending machine. Instead of wasting your money and your calories on junk food, try to plan a 10-minute break in the afternoon. Use this time to take a quick walk and enjoy a healthy snack.
What makes a healthy snack?
Snacking should be about supplementing your meals with bonus nutrition, so make the most out of your snacks by trying to include at least two food groups. Look for good sources of fiber and protein to most effectively keep hunger at bay. Snack food should not equal junk food. Watch added sugars and empty calories. Just because it’s only 100 calories, doesn’t mean it’s a good snack choice. Low-calorie snack packs are often little more than refined carbohydrates that provide no nutrition and do little to satisfy hunger.
Try out some of these ideas the next time you need a snack:
- Fruit and a small palm full of nuts
- Whole grain crackers with 1 ounce of cheese
- Beef jerky and a small handful of dried fruit
- Cut up vegetables or fruit with cottage cheese
- Hard boiled-egg with veggies
- Sliced tomato with avocado and feta cheese
- Tuna pouch with veggies
- Half a peanut butter sandwich and a piece of fruit
- 2 cups light popcorn with 1 ounce of cheese
- 1 cup whole grain, low-sugar cereal with milk and sliced strawberries
- Greek yogurt and fruit
- Veggies with hummus
- Homemade trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate
Snacks can be a great way to stave off hunger between meals and can be crucial for many people to meet their daily nutrient needs. While there is some evidence that eating frequent mini-meals or snacks may help with weight loss and/or maintenance, it’s important that snacking doesn’t turn into grazing.
To make the most out of your snacks, plan them out in advance. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of extra work. Simply choose nutrient-rich foods, and make sure they are on hand when hunger strikes. Keep a bin for snacks in your refrigerator, your kitchen pantry, and in your desk at work.
Make healthy snacks easy and convenient no matter where you are, and say goodbye to unhealthy vending machine and gas station food forever!
What’s your favorite healthy snack? Let us know in the comments below.
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