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Healthy Living

A Guide to Healthy Snacking

See what constitutes a healthy snack, then learn when, why, and how to incorportate mini-meals into your day.

By Lisa Whitmore
Variety of snack optionsLevi Brown


3 Ways to Control Your Cravings

If, despite the best-laid (snack) plans, cupcakes still call your name, there may be something else going on—like stress or fatigue, says Lippert. These tactics may help you calm your emotions and stave off a junk-food binge.

Take a walk. Researchers at the University of Exeter, in England, found that a walk can help derail mindless snacking. In their study, published this year, subjects who took a brisk 15-minute walk before indulging in a chocolaty treat consumed less of it than did those who stayed put. “Stress, boredom, and fatigue are all factors that can cause us to snack when we’re not hungry,” says Hwajung Oh, Ph.D., a researcher in the department of sports and exercise at the University of Exeter and one of the study authors. Exercise may combat these, says Oh, thereby helping you avoid unnecessary nibbles.

Get more sleep. A lack of shut-eye has long been shown to be associated with overeating in general, but new research suggests that it can lead specifically to oversnacking. In a recent study conducted at the Centre for Sleep Research, in Adelaide, Australia, people who slept for about four hours a night were more likely to eat excess snacks than were people who got more sleep. “Inadequate sleep can change the body’s levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which regulate feelings of hunger and fullness, respectively,” says Crandall. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep may put those hormones back in balance.

Tweak your environment. If you’re tempted to snack at the same place or time every day (when you hit the couch after dinner, for example), some other cues could be to blame. According to a research review published in the journal Annual Review of Nutrition in 2004, lighting and temperature may affect how much you eat. Keep the thermostat at a warmer temperature (throw on a sweater if you can’t turn down the air-conditioning), since subjects in one study were found to eat more in cold temperatures. And switch on bright overhead lights. Research indicates that dim or soft lighting may prompt people to consume more food.

Real-Life Snack Makeovers

Even the best snacking strategy in the world won’t help if you can’t incorporate it into your busy and complicated life. So it’s important to know what your bad habits are. Do you tend to graze all day? Eat junk when you’re bored or sleepy? Or maybe get so fried that you grab whatever is at hand? If so, join the club. Real Simple asked registered dietitian Marissa Lippert to review the food journals of three women with very different  challenges. Here’s a peek into each woman’s typical day, along with Lippert’s easy, doable suggestions for adopting healthier eating behaviors.

The Boredom Snacker

Sheryl Stein, 47
The challenge for this married stay-at-home mom of two: steering clear of the treats that she keeps in the house for her kids. “It’s easy to grab their junk when I’m bored or tired,” says Sheryl, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. “And sometimes it just looks tasty.”

Her Typical Day

Breakfast: Hot cereal with flax; coffee; a handful of her son’s sugary cereal.

Morning snack: None.

Lunch: Black beans and guacamole on a high-fiber tortilla; celery sticks.

Afternoon snacks: Honeyed almonds; 2 squares of chocolate; a cup of raisin bran with skim milk; crackers with peanut butter.

Dinner: Sautéed chicken breast with garlic, broccoli, peas, and basmati rice.

Nighttime snack: None.

What the nutritionist says: Sheryl eats well overall, but if she plans her food in advance, she won’t snack so much out of boredom in the afternoon. At breakfast she should skip the sugary cereal and add some protein, such as cottage cheese or nuts. It’s OK if she doesn’t need a morning snack. But for her afternoon snack she appears to be relying on sweets (yes, raisin bran is sugary!) for boosts of energy. Unfortunately, she crashes and burns quickly, which leads her to eat even more sugary stuff. Instead, she should amp up the protein and fiber at this time of day with cheese and fruit or steamed edamame. The afternoon would also be a good time for her to take a walk, call a friend, or work out, all things that will help break the boredom cycle and cut down on her oversnacking.

Read More About:Healthy Eating

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Quick Tip


Juice may serve up vitamins, but it won’t do much to ease hunger: Unlike solid foods, liquids don’t trip the brain’s satiety mechanism. For a more effective snack, pair a glass of 100 percent juice with a few nuts. Get more tips.