Three squares a day? That’s old thinking. The new way to stay lean, conquer cravings, and get all your daily nutrients is to master the mini meal.
Like the buddy system and afternoon naps, snack time fell out of your life in the first grade. From then on, you were taught not to "ruin" your supper―or waistline―with between-meal snacks, only to resort to energy bars (well, candy bars) in your weakest moments (say, 4 p.m.). But holding out for dinner isn’t going to earn you a gold star. Snacking is, in fact, an ingenious move if you nosh knowledgeably. Here, experts explain the benefits of nibbling and share their favorite delicious and, yes, healthy snacks.
Why It Makes Sense to Snack
1. It keeps your metabolism humming.
"Research suggests that, like a charge for a battery, eating about three meals a day with two or three snacks in between can make your metabolism more efficient," says Stephen Gullo, a psychologist and a weight-control specialist in New York City. This, in turn, aids in weight maintenance and even weight loss. "Snacking can help your body burn a few calories," he says. Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian in New York City and the author of The Snack Factor Diet ($12, amazon.com), suggests thinking of your metabolism as a fire in your belly that you turn on every morning. "A little food is the fuel you throw into the fire to keep it burning strong," she says. "For some people, that means stoking it every 2½ hours; for others, it’s every 3½ hours." The point is never to let your energy wane or to go without a bite for so long that you get very hungry.
2. It helps you eat less at mealtimes.
"You’re much better off having two snacks between the hours of two and seven, then having a light dinner," says Sara Ryba, a registered dietitian in Scarsdale, New York. "If you wait until you’re so ravenous that you would eat the kitchen table, you’ll wind up eating way more calories when you do finally sit down for supper." Experts suggest choosing a snack that has roughly 100 to 200 calories (a meal should start at about 300). Make sure it fills you up (to stop you from decimating the bread basket when dinnertime arrives) with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. "Together they stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you feeling satisfied," Ryba says. "If a snack is high in refined carbs or sugar, your blood sugar will jump, then crash, leaving you feeling tired and even more hungry."
Another way to ensure that a snack tides you over: Make it feel like a small meal, with multiple components. Experts suggest that if a dieter is given a 100-calorie snack that mimics a meal, such as shrimp cocktail or soup and a bran cracker, versus an apple, she is more likely to feel much more satisfied and less hungry. (Find more low-calorie snacks here.) One good choice that covers all these bases is low-fat cottage cheese and berries. The cheese contains fat and protein, and the berries have carbohydrates. Or you could opt for a single food that contains all three elements, such as low-fat yogurt. (It’s best to buy your yogurt plain and sweeten it yourself, using a little honey, some fruit, fruit preserves, or a dab of apple butter.)
3. It ensures you get all your vitamins.
"Snacking is a great way to fit in all the nutrients that your body requires each day," says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian in Atlanta and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Case in point: The average American woman doesn’t get the recommended 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day, so Moore suggests seeking out snacks rich in the mineral―for example, low-fat yogurt or almonds, which also pack in more protein and fiber. Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite and author of the cookbook So Easy ($20, amazon.com), recommends including a fruit or a vegetable in every meal and snack to get the nutrients you need. She notes that a crunchy apple or a juicy orange can boost your satisfaction for fewer calories while also adding important antioxidants to your diet. For a savory snack, Krieger dips celery into Sabra Hummus, and for a sweet fix, she dips fruit into Yoplait Yoplus fiber-enriched yogurt (both are widely available at supermarkets).
4. It puts you in a good mood.
"When blood sugar levels get too low, you can become irritable and have trouble concentrating," says Gullo. "So for mood control and cognitive and metabolic efficiency, healthy snacking between meals helps." Choose any snack you like (choking down celery sticks doesn’t do anything for your mood if you hate them), as long as it follows the experts’ basic guidelines.
5. It foils even the strongest cravings.
"If you are driving home from work and are hungry, every fast-food restaurant looks good," says Moore. "But if you play defense and have a snack before you leave, then you can hold out for dinner" without hitting the drive-through. And there’s a healthy snack to kill every craving. If you lust for crunchy, salty treats, try three-quarters of a cup of shelled edamame, which has about six grams of fiber, 12 grams of protein, and only 150 calories. Live for desserts? Gullo tops a 90-calorie Van’s Multigrain Waffle with fat-free whipped topping and strawberries for a low-calorie treat. And if you opt for health by chocolate, Krieger suggests mixing cocoa powder (the kind for baking) and honey into a paste, then pouring hot nonfat milk over it to make a hot chocolate that’s a good source of protein, vitamin D, and other nutrients and antioxidants. "There’s research that suggests chocolate milk is an excellent recovery drink after high-intensity exercise because it offers a balance of protein and carbs that your body needs," says Krieger. So when cravings attack, have a plan for giving in intelligently. "It’s all about knowing the foods that satisfy you," says Gullo, so you don’t feel deprived and end up eating more than you need or even want. "Strategy is better than willpower," he says.
Snack on This? Experts Weigh in On ...
Genius solution for folks on the go or candy bars in health-food clothing? According to experts, the answer is both. "It depends on the bar," says Krieger. "A lot are designed to be meal replacements, so they are 300 calories or more. If you eat them as a snack, you’ll get more calories than you need." Look for a bar that has 150 to 200 calories, at least four grams of protein, and four or more grams of fiber.
Drinks and Smoothies
"Liquids offer a low-calorie way of consuming a lot of volume, and more volume fills you up," says Ryba. Experts suggest a skim decaf latte or a skim cappuccino (calcium sources that fulfill a craving for warmth), a 60- to 100-calorie soup (Gullo loves the appetite-killing powers of tomato soup), or a homemade smoothie with ice, skim milk or plain yogurt, and a cup of berries (store-bought smoothies tend to be high in calories and sugar). Or have a solid snack with some antioxidant-rich green tea.
100-Calorie Snack Packs
"Remember how chip bags used to say ‘20 percent more free’?" says Gullo. "The food industry discovered that people will pay even more to be saved from themselves." In other words, they are willing to fork over extra money for snacks that keep the calories in check; that’s why you see 100-calorie bags of everything from crackers to cookies to chocolate. These are controlled portions, true, but good things don’t always come in small packages. "You want nutrient-dense calories, plus vitamins and minerals, and the protein and healthy fats that promote satiety," says Glassman. "One hundred calories of junk is better than 500 calories of junk, but often those 100 calories lead you to eat more, because you’re not satisfied with them."
For healthy, expert-approved snack ideas, see 24 Nutritious (and Tasty) Snacks.