America’s poor snacking habits have probably played a large part in the current state of our collective waistlines, so snacking has earned a poor reputation. But snacks by definition aren’t necessarily bad or bad for you. If you know when to snack, and what some healthy snack options are, you can confidently incorporate these into a healthy and balanced diet.
You might think that healthy snack foods don’t exist, but just take a step back and think about what a snack is. A snack is anything we eat between full meals. A good rule of thumb for snacks is to aim for options that cover two food groups. So nix that bag of greasy, fat-laden potato chips, and Try a banana with a smear of peanut butter, an apple with a piece of part-skim string cheese, a low-fat yogurt sprinkled with a handful of whole grain cereal or red pepper slices in bean dip or hummus. For fewer calories, more fiber, and fresher taste, choose fresh, minimally-processed foods instead of packaged snack foods. Any fruit is a good idea, because that fiber will help you feel full, and many options are convenient to carry with you on the run.
Seeds and nuts are also a great idea. Many nuts, such as sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts, are an excellent source of vitamin E, and moreover are a good source of a protein. And just like chips, packages of sunflower seeds, peanuts, or cashews are almost always sold at convenience stores, making them a convenient source of protein, minerals and fiber on the go.
To encourage yourself to snack on healthy, low calorie vegetables, prepare them ahead of time. Unlike pieces of fruit, many vegetables don’t come in convenient, self-contained packages. (You can fit an orange in your purse or coat pocket, but good luck trying to stuff that head of bok choy in there). Fresh grape tomatoes, baby carrots or raw snap peas are convenient choices to stick into a resealable bag and take on-the-go. Otherwise, cut up carrots or jicama or celery and put them in the fridge (or a resealable plastic bag), so you have fresh sticks on hand later in the day. Same thing for broccoli, cauliflower or bell peppers. Having something healthy immediately available will help prevent you from going for that bag of potato chips in a hunger-induced act of desperation. (Not that you buy stuff like that very often anyway. Right?)
But when should you snack? Body builders will often eat throughout the day as part of their training program, but most of us aren’t serious athletes. If at all possible, you should try to get all your calories at full meals, but of course, sometimes life doesn’t work out that way. So what’s the answer?
Have a small, healthy snack when you’re hungry because your regular mealtimes have been disrupted or when more than 4-6 hours pass between mealtimes. But only when you’re hungry! Not when your friends or kids are snacking, or if you’re bored, or if you need something to do at your desk to wake up. Not as a reward for a bad day, not something to do while you watch TV or read, and not because you wonder what the pretzels at that pretzel stand taste like. The idea sounds obvious and silly, but so many of us ignore this basic piece of advice—and this, more than anything, is why snacking has had such an impact on our waistlines. We snack when we don’t need to.
Bad snacking habits can be hard to break. But this is all the more reason why you should keep convenient, healthy snack foods on hand at all times. If you find yourself snacking when you shouldn’t, you’ll do a lot less damage to your health if you go overboard on the clementines instead of the chocolate chip cookies.