Anatomy of a Healthy Snack
Snacks. Growing up, we were told they would ‘spoil our appetite’. Now we are told to go ahead, snack away! Some diet gurus even recommend grazing throughout the day. For all of the confusion surrounding this topic, ‘snack’ really should be a four-letter word.
For example, a friend of my middle-school aged son was over after school one day and asked if they could have a snack. “Sure!” I said enthusiastically as I started to rattle off options that they could put together like: a smoothie, an apple with peanut butter, a waffle with peanut butter, etc.
“Noooo, Mrs. DeRocco!” his friend interrupted, “A snack. A REAL snack. You know. Like a “SNACK-snack”. Don’t you have any Doritos?”
So, what exactly is a snack? Why do we need it and what makes a good one?
By definition, a snack is a small amount of food eaten in-between meals. If you are eating 3 meals and if you are eating every 3-4 hours, that gives you two opportunities for healthy snacks. Let’s break this down further and get to where the rubber meets the road.
Snacks should be nourishing and fueling. A snack is a nutritious bridge between one meal and another. Does what you are eating have nutritional value? Is it filling AND fueling? Is it made from whole foods? If it is not meeting these requirements, consider it a treat and know that you are likely filling up on empty calories. The biggest bummer? These calories (think pretzels, cookies, chips, crackers, pizza goldfish) are not even satisfying. You will likely find yourself hungry again shortly after inhaling, I mean, consuming them. I may or may not know this from personal experience.
Snacks should contain a little protein. We want to keep our blood sugar level throughout the day and avoid the insulin surge and subsequent energy crash that items loaded with starch (think chips, fries) and sugar (coffee drinks, many energy bars) can cause. When we have low blood sugar, our brains cry out for quick fuel in the form of starches and sugars. We may feel ravenous (one extreme end of the hunger scale that we want to avoid) and reach for a quick fix–often whatever is within reach (think vending machine).Protein helps to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream, which in turn prevents that big insulin spike; which then prevents the energy crash that sends you searching for more food. Since protein provides that slow release it is more likely to keep you feeling full. So, incorporate some protein into that snack!
Add a fruit or vegetable to every snack! Fruits and vegetables are loaded with fiber, are hydrating and contain the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that we need to prevent disease and to create a healthy immune system. Plus, they taste great, there are many from which to choose, they are low in calories and the fiber makes them very filling! Have you ever overeaten celery? I didn’t think so.
Consider a healthy fat. Healthy fats are also a great source of energy for the body. Our brains require them to function, they help us absorb certain vitamins and they slow the absorption of other parts of our meal. This helps keep us full and satisfied. Be mindful here because you do not need a lot of these healthy fats. If you consumed a healthy fat (nuts, nut butter, avocado, olives, olive oil) already or are planning to include one in your next meal, skip it. Though there are many benefits to including healthy fats in your diet, they are also much higher in calories per portion, so we need to be mindful about how much and how often we are eating them.
Snacks should be eaten purposefully and mindfully. This is a tough one. Snacking while working. Snacking while driving. Snacking while watching TV. Or checking email. Or making dinner or lunches for the next day. Snacking and multi-tasking do not mix–the next thing you know you are left holding the bag–the empty bag, that is! Though I know sometimes we cannot avoid having a snack in the car, try to really pay attention to what and how much you are eating. Really chew, taste and ENJOY your snacks!
You know what I am going to say next. Get the tempting snacks that are not providing you with any nutrition out of the house. If you are mindlessly popping pizza Goldfish like nobody’s business because they were your favorite as a child and your parents never bought them and having kids is now an excuse for you, as an adult, to eat pizza Goldfish (phew, feels good to get that off of my chest) remove them from your reach! Chances are, if you shouldn’t be eating them, neither should your kids. Pick the item that calls to you the most and get rid of it. Slowly move your kids to less processed snacks so that you are not tempted by them.
Watch portions. Remember, the snack is just a bridge to the next meal. Measure out your snacks. Count out 15 nuts and put them in a container with your apple. Know that two tablespoons is roughly the size of a ping-pong ball and portion out your hummus/nut butter that way. Here is a great slide show to help with portion control.
Be mindful of the ‘health halo.’ You have heard me say this before. The giant, sugary muffin “made with flax seeds” or the “protein bar” that really has more calories and sugar than a Snickers bar, “multi-grain” chips that are no better than potato chips; these are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Read the ingredients. Check the grams of sugar on the label. Know what you are putting into your body–you work too hard not to!
Finally, consider not having a snack. Yes, I am going a bit rogue here. There are days when I have a big, healthy lunch loaded with veggies, protein and a whole grain. If I eat a big (healthy) meal and I am drinking my water (hunger is often a sign of dehydration) I may skip a snack simply because I am really not hungry. Then there are days I miss my snack and am ready to eat my arm off. A good way to test this is to pay attention to the meal you eat after you have missed a snack. Is it healthy? Or do you find yourself craving sugar, salt, starch? Or ready to eat the first thing in sight? Keep the hunger scale in mind and remember that we never want to get to either extreme. Bob Greene of Oprah fame recommends putting your utensils down at 5-6 to see if you are still hungry, stopping at 5 if you are trying to lose weight and stopping at 6 if you are trying to maintain your weight.
Here are a few ideas for healthy snacks:
Hard-boiled eggs with a piece of fruit
Apple 'sandwiches' with nut or seed butter
Hummus or bean dips with raw vegetables
Wasa cracker with Laughing Cow cheese and sun-dried tomatoes (in package, not oil)
Greek or plain yogurt parfaits with nuts and fruit toppings )add maple syrup, dates or bananas for added sweetness)
Mini sandwiches such as peanut butter & strawberry or apple & almond butter
Nitrate free turkey (1 slice) wrapped around a pickle or Romaine lettuce
Celery and carrots with nut butter dip
Oatmeal with almond milk and fruit/nut toppings
Popcorn w/Nutritional yeast and a touch of salt
What is your favorite snack? We would love some of your inspiration!