Munching between meals has become almost an American pastime. For many of us, snacking has become so automatic that our pocketbooks, desk drawers and glove boxes are stocked with quick food fixes. But how you snack determines whether or not snacking is a healthy practice.
"If you think of snacks as supplying nutrients instead of just quick calories, snacking can be a great way to get you from one meal to the next," says Darlene Zimmerman, a registered dietitian with the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute. The smartest snacks not only help you meet your nutrient needs, they also satisfy your cravings.
Craving Comfort Food
With the holiday season rapidly approaching, smart snacking is more important than at any other time of year. Here's your go-to-guide for healthy snacks that satisfy every craving from sweet to salty:
Got a sweet tooth? Here's some good news: There are plenty of healthy snack options that can satisfy your hankering for sweet treats. A few favorites:
- A cup of plain frozen yogurt
- Frozen fruit, especially grapes or bananas
- A few tablespoons of dried fruit
- An ounce of dark chocolate (preferably 60% cocoa or more)
- Chocolate milk or hot cocoa (bonus: both beverages boast calcium and vitamin D)
Salty snacks are about as a popular choice for many Americans. Unfortunately, high-sodium snacks are a no-no for people who have high blood pressure or other health conditions. To quell your cravings without compromising your health, try seasoning snacks like popcorn and salt-free rice cakes with a salt-free or a lower-salt spice blend. Better yet, buy salt-free versions of traditional salty snacks like pretzels and nuts.
There are a slew of healthy, crunchy snack options, but Zimmerman's preferred pick is popcorn. This popular snack is made of healthy whole grain and has about 1 gram of fiber per cup. You can air pop kernels or do it the old-fashioned way over the stovetop with a tablespoon of oil. Other great crunchy snacks include raw veggies, such as celery and carrots, whole fruits like apples and pears, roasted chickpeas and crunchy granola bars that boast 3 grams of fiber or more.
Snacks that are healthy and creamy aren't hard to find. A few favorites:
- Greek yogurt
- Hummus or white bean dip
- Smoothies (particularly those boasting plenty of leafy greens)
- Peanut butter
The latter two options are high in calories and fat, but they both contain the healthy fats your body needs to help stave off chronic disease.
When it comes to snacking, your best bet is to choose whole foods first — fruits, vegetables and whole grains — over foods that come in packages. Then follow these snack-safe strategies:
- Focus on food groups: Most of us know we should be eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limit sweets. "So when you're thinking about snacks, focus on food groups over candy bars or energy bars," Zimmerman says. "If you think about which whole foods might satisfy your cravings in that moment, you may be able to quiet your cravings and your hunger pangs."
- Choose high fiber: A critical nutrient, fiber absorbs into the digestive tract slowly. High-fiber snacks help keep hunger pangs at bay between meals and allow your brain time to register that your belly is full. Unfortunately, most Americans don't meet their daily quota of this important nutrient: 25 grams per day for women and 35 for men.
- Keep an eye on portion sizes: Portion sizes have ballooned in recent decades. Once, a standard-sized granola bar contained about 140 calories; now they can add up to 300. "Portion size is key, especially with snacks since you might eat two or three daily," Zimmerman says. "A good general guideline for snack foods is to choose items that are between 100 and 200 calories."
Most importantly, get creative. Apples and pears are a lot tastier when they're baked and sprinkled with crumbled oat topping. (Try this easy recipe.) Hummus is more tempting with spices mixed in. And Greek yogurt tastes even better with a teaspoon of peanut butter swirled into the center.
As always, your best bet for wholesome snacks is to prepare them yourself rather than relying on convenience packs of snack items," Zimmerman says. If you do opt for a packaged snack, make sure to check the nutrition label. Then select the snacks that contain the most fiber and the lowest added sugar.
Darlene Zimmerman, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian with the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute and the author of the Heart Smart® Cookbook, now in its third edition with more than 100,000 copies sold nationwide.