Are you a snacker? If so, you are not alone. About 25% of our daily calories come from snacks. Are healthy snacks included in your healthy daily eating plan, or do you grab what is handy that “hits the spot” at the moment? What is the difference between a snack and a meal? What makes up a healthy snack, and should snacking be encouraged or eliminated? Do we snack only because of hunger, or are there other reasons? Information from the National Institute of Health, the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) speaks to the importance of snacks, what makes a healthy snack when snacking should be “mindfully considered,” and examples of healthy snacks to satisfy hunger.
A snack is a small portion of food or drink, or a light meal, especially one eaten between regular meals. So are snacks a good thing? They certainly can be, but it depends on the snack. If a snack is providing “empty calories” and nothing else, also known as an increase in “energy density,” it would not be considered a healthy snack – those types of snacks would include chips, cookies, sodas, and alcohol. Choosing snacks that are “nutrient-dense,” providing nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals as well as calories, makes important contributions to your daily eating pattern. Those snacks could be as simple as a piece of fresh fruit, apple slices with peanut butter, low-fat cream cheese on a whole wheat bagel, Greek yogurt, or air-popped popcorn. Nuts can be a healthy snack but watch the portion size. All of these foods contribute to your daily food intake, so they can be important if your appetite is poor or access to meals is limited.
We snack when we are hungry between meals and frequently before bedtime. We also snack when we are stressed, bored, or know that a snack is within our reach, so hunger is often not the reason. Being “mindful” about snacking can help you decide if a snack is really necessary, so consider these tips:
- Rate your hunger. On a scale from one (starving) to ten (stuffed), assess where you are. If you are four or below, consider a snack. This helps to distinguish hunger from boredom and prevents overeating at your next meal. You may be thirsty, and a glass of water may be sufficient.
- Limit distractions. Silence your phone and turn off the TV. It is easy to consume several portions of a snack when you are distracted, so remove those distractions when you can.
- Take small bites and savor each one. Savoring each small bite makes it last longer, and using your senses helps to appreciate the flavor, texture, aroma, and appearance of our snack.
- Check-in midway. Assess your hunger again midway during your snack to see if you are satisfied or still hungry. You may be full but want to continue eating. Try this to avoid overeating.
When you do need a snack, consider these suggestions that promote heart health and satisfy hunger:
- Nuts contain healthy fats, as well as protein and other nutrients. Consider almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and cashews; they have a long shelf life, are portable, and delicious.
- Dairy products, particularly low fat and fat-free products, including Greek yogurt and cheese, are good options. Fortified soymilk is another option. Snacks include string cheese, yogurt cups, and snack-sized milk/soymilk.
- Whole grains promote heart health by helping to lower cholesterol, blood lipid levels, and blood pressure. Three or more servings daily help reduce cardiovascular risks. Heart-healthy snacks include whole-grain cereal, popcorn, whole wheat toast and crackers, and granola made with oats.
- Cocoa and dark chocolate contain antioxidants to help decrease inflammation. Choose dark chocolate with 55% or more cocoa content, or add 1-2 teaspoons to your smoothie snack.
Sometimes selecting one small indulgent snack is more satisfying than choosing several “healthy” ones. That can be OK. Snacks, like meals, should nourish and satisfy, so be mindful when choosing a snack.
Source materials retrieved from “Go4Life®/Healthy Snacking” (National Institute on Aging at National Institutes of Health); “How to Make the Most of Eating Between Meals” (www.foodinsight.org/9460) modified on 7/9/2018; “5 Tips to Curb Your Late-Night Snacking” by Penelope Clark, MS, RDN, CDN (www.eatright.org/AND) published 1/19/2018; “Mindful Snacking” (www.foodinsight.org/9312) modified on 11/2/2017; and “Heart-y Snack Attack” (www.foodinsight.org/9143 ) modified 3/27/2017.