There’s no doubt about it: We love to snack.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 90 percent of adults eat between meals on any given day, and a new report from The Hartman Group’s Eating Occasions Database found that more than half of all “eating occasions” were snacks last year. That adds up to two and a half snacks a day for the average American.
As someone who falls into the 90 percent, I think it’s important to know both the pitfalls and pluses to noshing between meals.
The not-so-good news is that, generally speaking, the more you snack, the more you eat. And so-called serial snackers consume nearly a meal’s worth of calories from non-meals every day, which could lead to weight gain.
Quality counts too. Snack foods are often synonymous with foods such as chips, cookies, and candy. Frequent munching on highly processed, low-nutrient fare may make for deficiencies in vital nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and iron.
But there’s good news as well: Balanced snacks help fill in nutrition gaps, and mindful munching can actually help you lose weight and keep it off since it prevents you from getting too hungry and reaching for high-calorie foods.
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The trick is to plan nutrient-rich snacks for at home and away that won’t wreck your calorie budget, and to think of snacks not as treats but as mini-meals, and include the same types of foods you would at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is especially important as the line between meals and snacks is blurring.
The best pairings combine foods rich in protein—such as eggs, dairy, lean meat, nuts, and beans—with foods packing complex carbohydrates (including fiber), like whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. This mix will help you stay fuller for longer while supplying vitamins and minerals.
If you don’t have enough time to eat adequate meals or don’t like to eat a lot of food at once, eat what you want and save the rest for later. I eat a half cup of whole-grain cereal with milk and fruit early in the morning, but it’s not enough to hold me until lunch, so I have a single-serving carton of fat-free Greek yogurt every day around 9 a.m. to help me get the protein and calcium I need. You can spread out lunch and dinner too: There’s no reason why you can’t have the remainder of a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread at 3 p.m. instead of cheese puffs or a chocolate bar.
RELATED: Satisfy a craving for crunchy and creamy with these 200-calorie snacks.
Whatever you decide to have, you must count snack calories as part of your daily allowance for weight loss or maintenance. Here are some of my favorite healthy snacks for 200 calories or less.
- 100-calorie pack of guacamole and 6 reduced-fat woven wheat-whole grain crackers (such as Triscuits)
- 1 cup fat-free chocolate milk (warm it up for hot cocoa)
- 1 hard-boiled egg with 1 small (1 ounce) whole-grain roll
- 1 ounce (about 24) almonds
- 1 mini (1 ounce) whole-wheat bagel topped with 1 tablespoon peanut butter or sunflower seed butter
- 1 sliced medium apple dipped in 1 container (6 ounces) fat-free Greek yogurt
- 1 packet instant oatmeal made with 1/2 cup fat-free milk
- 1 cup cooked edamame in pods
- Chocolate-banana smoothie: Combine 1 small banana, 1 cup fat-free milk, 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 2 ice cubs in a blender until frothy.
Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian and author of several books about women's health and family nutrition, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better