These Dietitian-Approved High-Protein Snacks Will Keep You from Getting Hangry
If you were to take a quick peek at the snack collection in your pantry and fridge right now, there's a good chance most of those munchies are rich with carbohydrates — and only carbohydrates. While there's nothing wrong with fueling up with carbs — the body's main source of energy — via crunchy popcorn, salty pretzels, or sweet granola bars, opting for snacks that pair the macronutrient with a nice amount of protein could do you some good.
Here, registered dietitians break down why high-protein snacks can be a beneficial addition to anyone's meal plan, plus the protein-packed munchies worth stocking up on.
The Perks of High-Protein Snacks
In case you forgot your high school health class' nutrition lesson, protein is a macronutrient that helps build and repair cells, tissue, and muscle; ensures proper growth and development; and assists in body processes such as blood clotting, fluid balance, and more, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Translation: "Proteins are necessary for your body to maintain normal function," says Abby Chan, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and the co-owner of EVOLVE Flagstaff in Arizona.
Along with keeping your body running optimally, protein plays a key role in making you feel full and satisfied, adds Ashley Munro, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.C.E.S., a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor in Tucson, Arizona. Specifically, protein is broken down slower than carbohydrates, which increases satiety, and when eaten alongside carbs, it slows down how quickly blood sugar rises, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Protein's really helpful at stabilizing blood sugar...[and] having good blood sugar throughout the day helps all of us feel satisfied and sustained," she explains.
As such, most people could benefit from munching on high-protein snacks between meals, agree Chan and Munro. If you feel low on energy, experience brain fog, or have a tough time concentrating a few hours after eating a meal, for example, incorporating a protein into a mid-day munchie could help you get back to feeling your best, says Munro. Folks with certain health conditions may notice some perks, as well. A protein-packed snack can help prevent blood sugar levels from spiking in individuals who are pregnant or lactating, as well as those with diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome — a condition often linked with insulin resistance, says Munro. "Typically folks with certain conditions like PCOS and diabetes feel a lot better and feel a lot sharper if they are having protein at meals and snacks," she says.
For athletes and fitness enthusiasts hoping to make some gains, a high-protein snack can also help ensure you're getting the most out of the macronutrient. Your body generally can't process more than 30 grams of protein in one sitting, says Munro, so if you were to eat an 8 ounce steak for lunch, you might only be taking in half of that protein, adds Chan. Spreading your protein intake throughout the day by munching on snacks, however, gives your body the opportunity to process every single gram.
What to Look for In a High-Protein Snack
When choosing a high-protein snack, you'll first want to check the protein content. Generally, active folks should aim to score about 10 grams of protein in their munchie, agree Munro and Chan. That said, your exact snack needs will depend on how much of the macronutrient you need to obtain in total each day. The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (or 0.36 grams per pound), but that's just the baseline recommendation, says Chan. "That's the amount needed for your body to maintain normal function and repair itself overall, but it's going to vary depending on how much movement you do in your life," she explains. "If someone is an athlete or high-intensity recreational exerciser, or someone is older, you need more protein." As a rule of thumb, consider looking for a snack that offers half the amount of protein you'd typically eat in a meal, adds Munro. (Wait, should you be following a high-protein diet?)
That said, protein isn't the only nutrient you should look for in your munchie. "If you're hungry, it's important to look at if we can incorporate not just protein, but if we can also incorporate a small amount of carb," says Chan. Carbohydrates are digested quickly, raise blood sugar levels in roughly 15 minutes, and release mood-boosting serotonin and satiating hormones, so they turn off your brain's "hunger switch," she explains. Then, the snack's protein — which is broken down lower in the digestive tract and thus takes longer to process — as well as its fat and fiber, will keep you feeling satisfied, she says. "It's important to look at if we can include some sort of fiber, as in like a fruit or vegetable, because it's going to slow down our digestion, which means we are hopefully not going to be hungry in the next hour," says Chan.
Nutrition aside, it's just as important to choose a high-protein snack that's tasty and accessible for you, says Munro. "It's gotta taste good otherwise you're not going to want to eat it," she adds. (Related: 11 Natural Snacks You're Going to Want to Stock Up On)
When Should You Eat a High-Protein Snack?
While the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming protein — whether it be a shake, snack, or full-fledged meal — within an hour after exercising to help build lean muscle, generally, there isn't one "right" time to eat a high-protein snack. Instead, both Munro and Chan recommend listening to your body and munching when you feel hungry. "Snacking can be this really great thing that bridges you from meal to meal, and it can really help support keeping you fueled throughout the day," says Munro. If you ignore your body's mid-afternoon cues for munchie, then when dinner rolls around, you might eat too much and end up feeling overly full and uncomfortable later, adds Chan. (Related: Exactly What to Do When You Overeat and Feel Sick, According to Nutritionists)
And that's why having high-protein snacks on hand for the moment hunger strikes is so important. To start beefing up your snack stockpile, add these R.D.-approved munchies to your shopping list.