A Guide to Healthy Snacking

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

snacks
Photo by Levi Brown

If you’ve ever forgotten to defrost the chicken for dinner—and ended up ordering a pepperoni pizza instead—you know that healthy eating often requires planning. And yet snacking is largely about spontaneity (as in, “It’s 3 p.m.—oh, jeez, I need some chips”). Having a game plan, however, can turn those grab-and-go moments into opportunities to eat well, conquer our worst urges, and pump up our energy, says Jim White, a registered dietitian in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition. These strategies and guidelines will help.

The New Snacking Rules

When to snack: Just because you always grab a granola bar and coffee at 10 a.m. doesn’t mean you should. Don’t snack because it’s part of your daily routine; do it when you’re a little bit hungry. “I tell my clients to use a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed,” says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian in Denver and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You need a snack when you’re at a 3 or 4.” Many people won’t hit that mark until about three hours after a meal, but some will get there faster. In those cases, experts say, don’t punish your rumbling belly. Go ahead and have a bite. However, if you’re trying to drop a few pounds and are not truly hungry, consider holding out until lunch and having your first snack in the afternoon. A 2011 study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, found that subjects who skipped midmorning snacks lost more weight than did those who had the snacks.

What to snack on: Keep these general guidelines in mind when choosing a snack: 150 to 250 calories, about 3 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and no more than 12 grams of fat. “Protein and fiber help you feel full and satisfied,” says Crandall. “So you shouldn’t feel the need to grab another snack soon after, and you’ll be less likely to overeat at your next meal.” Realistically, hitting all these markers with every snack is near impossible. So aim for overall balance. If one snack is short on protein, for instance, make sure your next one has a little extra. Find 19 healthy snack ideas.

How to snack: One word: mindfully. Treat each snack as a mini meal by taking one serving and, if possible, putting it on a plate, says Marissa Lippert, a registered dietitian in New York City and the founder of Nourish, a nutrition-counseling company. She recommends keeping a salad plate in your desk drawer at work. Why? We tend to associate a clean plate with satisfaction and a feeling of fullness (something an empty 100-calorie–pack wrapper may not supply).

Also, don’t multitask when you eat; simply enjoy the flavors of the food. Try to apply this strategy at regular meals, too. A 2009 study conducted at the University of Birmingham, in England, showed that when you’re distracted during mealtime (watching old episodes of Mad Men, say), you may be more likely to oversnack later on. “When we eat, we encode information about a meal, including the flavors, the textures, and how satisfied we feel, which is called a meal memory,” says Suzanne Higgs, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Birmingham and one of the study authors. So Don Draper might be preventing us from forming proper meal memories, says Higgs. That can trick our brains, leading us to pick later, even though we may not be physiologically hungry.

 

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.

 

The Impulse Snacker

Lindsay Wills, 36
As a busy working mom of two children under the age of 3, Lindsay, from Hoboken, New Jersey, finds it really hard to prep healthy snacks. With an hour-long commute and meeting-filled workdays, she doesn’t have time to think about snacks and consequently is so hungry for dinner that she doesn’t make wise choices.

Her Typical Day

Breakfast: A bowl of sweetened oat cereal with milk; a glass of grapefruit juice.

Morning snack: None.

Lunch: A chicken quesadilla; garden-veggie chips; a Diet Coke.

Afternoon snack: Candy; a piece of cake if a coworker is having a birthday.

Dinner: A big bowl of cereal with milk; jelly beans.

Nighttime snack: None.

What the nutritionist says: If Lindsay likes cereal, she should switch to a low-sugar version with five or more grams of fiber. Avoid the juice, which lacks fiber and has the same energy-spike-and-crash effect as sugar, and instead choose whole fruit. She should add a mid-morning snack on days when she is hungry or when lunch will be later than usual. It might be smart for her to stock a desk drawer or the office refrigerator with easy options—say, individual packets of plain instant oatmeal, a tin of roasted nuts, or an ounce of cheese—so she doesn’t even have to think about choices. She can indulge her sweet tooth during her afternoon snack as long as it’s balanced and in moderation. For example, she could forgo the candy in favor of a skim mocha latte. That way, she’ll get a taste of chocolate along with nutritious protein and calcium from the milk. And if she simply must have the birthday cake, she should ask for a half-size slice and wash it down with low-fat or skim milk or supplement it with a piece of fruit. Taking these steps, she won’t be ravenous when she gets home and will be able to make a more thoughtful dinner choice.

The All-Day Snacker

Jeanne Knudsen, 50
Jeanne, a mother of four, teaches high school social studies in Ridge, New York. At school, her lunch period comes early—at 9:20 a.m.!—and she reports that she feels hungry the rest of the day. “I just graze until bedtime,” she says.

Her Typical Day

Breakfast: A bagel with cream cheese.

Morning snacks: A lemon energy bar; chocolate from the faculty center.

Lunch: Yogurt with peaches and granola.

Afternoon snack: Cheese and crackers or carrots and hummus.

Dinner: Grilled chicken with egg noodles and a side salad.

Nighttime snack: Two Girl Scout cookies.

What the nutritionist says: Switching to a protein-rich or high-fiber whole-grain breakfast is Jeanne’s first order of business. When you start the morning with a refined-carbohydrate- or sugar-heavy item, like a bagel, you can set your blood sugar off on a roller coaster of highs and lows, which causes you to reach for more carb- and sugar-laden snacks throughout the day. But having protein and complex carbohydrates in the morning, such as eggs with a piece of whole-grain toast and fruit, prevents that cycle from starting. For Jeanne’s morning snack, she should skip the energy bar, which has too much sugar. Instead, she should go for a balanced fruit-and-nut bar or some whole foods, like an apple and a single-serve pack of peanut butter. With a snack like this, she’ll find it easier to avoid the chocolate. She also needs a more substantial midday meal to stave off excess afternoon eating. A salad with protein, such as tuna, vegetables, and healthy fats, like avocado or nuts, would be ideal. But because her lunch break is so early, she may not be in the mood for salad. In that case, she could keep the yogurt and fruit but switch to a more satiating, protein-packed Greek yogurt. Then she can eat the salad when the last bell rings and be satisfied until dinner.