Healthy Snacking 101

By Luke Pearce, Lead Nutritionist, B.Sc. Biology, PN-1, NASM-CPT
Inner Element Fitness Lead Nutritionist

Snacking is often considered a nice way to keep your body nourished between meals, but it can sometimes get mixed up in diet controversies. At Inner Element Fitness®, we want to help you find a total balance that keeps you healthy for life, while feeling good about yourself – and snacking can be an important part of healthy living. Before I give you a list of what I consider to be healthy snack options, though, let me answer a few questions about snacking itself.

What makes a snack healthy?

I recommend that our clients ideally look for the same principles in snacks as they look for in their meal options. Great snacks would include a whole food option or one ingredient foods, but I know that we also have to do the best we can in the world we live in. Try eating snacks that are high in protein with some good micronutrient value such as fiber, but if that is not realistic for you, I recommend looking for less calorically dense options that still offer good nutrition. If you cannot find a one ingredient option, for example, then some type of jerky can be an easy, good value snack.

Why are snacks good for you?

Most people wait way too long between meals, so their body begins to feel like it is starving. More primal instincts take over, and this leads to binging or overeating. A snack should be something small to stave off these hunger pains while still getting good nutritional value.

What are common snack myths?

We somehow created a myth that we need a certain amount of snacks every day, when the truth is that we should pay attention to when our body is saying it is hungry. If snacks cause you to eat over your caloric maintenance needs, then that is an issue.

The purpose of having good snacks is to prevent you from overeating so people sometimes think they cannot have anything else if a “healthy” option is not available, but maybe they can if it fulfills a purpose. For example, most people believe that granola makes a better snack than cereal but looking at the nutrition labels might reveal that while the granola is usually lower in sugar or less processed, the serving for cereal could actually have fewer calories.

Another myth is that “just a little” here and there can’t hurt. Instead of a set snack someone might just have a piece of candy here, or a parent might finish the last chicken nugget for a child. We tend not to include these items in our daily caloric intake, but doing something like this several times a day can add up to an extra meal.

When is the best time to eat a snack?

The “best” time to snack depends on the individual. If you know it will be a long time before your next meal, a small snack is a good idea. But, you really should not be looking for snacks right after a meal. After you eat a meal, let your body relax and give it time to realize that you have provided food. It usually takes 20 minutes after you stop eating for the stomach to signal the brain that it is full.

Is it possible to snack too much?

Each person must look at their own specific lifestyle and daily caloric energy expenditure. A snack for one person might be a meal for another person. For example, with a highly-active man who burns 3,000 calories per day, a 500-calorie snack is not that much. But for someone who only burns 1,500 calories a day, a 500-calorie snack is 1/3 of their calories for the day.

Should I always eat “clean” snacks?

It is not always necessary to eat “clean” snacks if you are mindful of your intake. Protein bars, for example, are a processed food, but they can serve a snacking purpose if they have low calories and good nutritional content. Popcorn can be a snack option if you don’t pour melted butter all over it, but instead use some flavoring options to kick your sensory memory into gear.

Is there anyone who should not snack?

Healthy snacking can be a great part of a healthy lifestyle, but if your idea of a snack is a cheeseburger and fries, that is bad. A snack should not make you go over your maintenance calories for the day. If you eat three large meals a day and snack between, it can be very hard to lose weight, but eating three smaller meals with proper snacks can help keep you on track. A snack should leave you satisfied, not full. Set smart goals about what to reasonably expect, and eat in order to enjoy your best lifestyle.

Healthy Snack Ideas

While keeping these guidelines in mind, here are some great ideas for mindful snacking:

  1. Avocado/guacamole
  2. Hummus
  3. Berries
  4. Mixed nuts
  5. Bell peppers
  6. Apple slices with peanut butter
  7. Celery with almond butter
  8. Cottage cheese with cinnamon
  9. Greek feta dip
  10. Caprese salad
  11. Hard-boiled egg
  12. Goat cheese
  13. Trail mix
  14. Edamame
  15. Dark chocolate
  16. Almonds
  17. Cucumbers
  18. Faux-tato chips
  19. Apple nachos
  20. Roasted chickpeas
  21. Olive tapenade

The authors of “Eat This, Not That” have some great snack ideas, and here are some healthy snack ideas for kids. Just like your meals, try to think ahead about your snacks. If a snack takes too long to prepare, hunger builds and you can make poor choices. Make smart snack choices that keep hunger at bay, while maintaining your overall health.

Want more helpful ways to eat healthy? Ask me about designing a personalized nutritional plan to help you achieve your health goals. 

DISCLAIMER Please recognize the fact that it is your responsibility to work directly with your physician before, during, and after seeking fitness consultation. As such, any information provided is not to be followed without the prior approval of your physician. If you choose to use this information without the prior consent of your physician, you are agreeing to accept full responsibility for your decision. 

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