I love to snack. Who doesn’t? My favorite picks include bananas; green apples (red delicious or gala); pink grapefruit; chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe or pineapple; nuts (pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans and almonds); low-fat organic chocolate milk; popcorn (specifically, Skinny Pop); and while preparing dinner, cold carrots or cooked, cooled Brussels sprouts. But don’t get me wrong—I’m not so virtuous! I also like my sweets—donuts, cookies, ice cream, licorice, and mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Fortunately, years of working as a registered dietitian have helped me learn to (for the most part) practice what I preach and eat these foods (which are more like desserts than snacks) in small portions (ex: 1/2 donut, 1 cookie, or a half cup of ice cream).
Planning snacks ahead of time is, in my opinion, a great way to get key nutrients into your diet and fill in gaps from meals. For example, if you start your day with a breakfast that includes whole-grain cereal and nonfat milk, you can fill that gap with a mid-morning snack of protein (nuts or a hard-boiled egg) and fruit (fresh fruit or berries are healthful bets).
Although the jury is still out on whether or not snacking contributes to weight gain, everyone’s different. Some like three square meals with no snacks to keep them energized and satisfied, while others feel they need that plus one or two snacks to get through the day without collapsing. Personally, I like having three main meals (though I usually keep lunch or dinner light) and have two to three snacks a day.
People who train or exercise regularly have higher calorie needs (usually, they also feel hungrier), and having a planned snack or two can help them maintain energy levels. I can tell you from my own experience that training for the More Half-Marathon has made me feel a slight uptick in my appetite—mainly on my long-walk days. During my last couple of two-hour-plus walks, I experimented by “snacking” on licorice bits for fast and easy energy. (But of course I need to count those extra calories as “empty” ones since licorice does not fit into any key food group. Or does it? Hmm...).
If you like your snacks and want to eat them too, go right ahead! But here are some of my tips—in honor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual National Nutrition Month—to help you get the most out of your interim meals:
1) Be Selective. When you grocery shop, choose foods and beverages from the key food groups (fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein). Opt for foods from each food group in their lowest fat and sugar form (examples include raw nuts, nonfat or low-fat plain yogurt, dried fruit without added sugar, unsweetened apple sauce, whole grain/low-sugar cereals, whole-wheat crackers or unsalted pretzels and low-fat popcorn).
2) Read Between the Lines. When you grab food from a vending machine or convenience store, think first and foremost about where that food (or beverage) fits into your diet. If you can’t identify the food group that item comes from (where does chocolate fit? or cheesy crackers?) then most of the calories from those items will probably be empty calories that won’t contribute substantial nutrients to your diet. When you choose foods that don’t come from the basic food groups, count them as desserts. Having up to 100 or 150 calories a day from those foods shouldn’t really wreck an otherwise healthful, nutritious diet.
3) Pare Portions. It’s important to be able to eyeball appropriate portion sizes, especially when you grab snacks away from home. Even a visibly small serving (ex: a small candy bar, a bag of chips or a small bag of nuts) can easily have more than 200 or 300 calories and thus, be a bigger portion than you can really afford calorie-wise. For example, an ounce of nuts (about two tablespoons worth) may be appropriate for a 5’2” woman like me, but two ounces (about four tablespoons) may be appropriate for her 6-foot husband. When you’re home, keep on hand small plastic baggies, bowls and utensils to help you properly portion out snacks for yourself and the rest of your family.