Whenever I mention the word “snack” at one of my nutrition-related Lunch ‘n Learns, I make sure to look around the room to gauge participant’s reactions. Through my unofficial observations, I’ve determined that most people’s definitions of the term fall into one of three categories:
- Cookies, candy, chips, crackers – anything that comes in a package and tastes good.
- Something to avoid at all costs if you want to lose weight or maintain a recent weight loss.
- A small portion of something healthy that helps you stay full in between meals.
While you are welcome to think of the word “snack” in any way you like, only one of the above definitions is nutritionally correct. If you think a snack is a small portion of something healthy that helps you stay full in between meals, you have the right idea. Snacks, from a nutritionist’s perspective, are portion-controlled foods that serve a purpose – namely, to help stabilize your blood sugar and therefore give you energy and keep you feeling full in between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner. In order to serve this purpose, the ideal snack has the following characteristics:
- It’s eaten in between meals to ensure that you’re not going longer than 4-6 hours without eating something
- It contains 200 calories or less (anything more than that and you’re looking at what I consider to be a small meal)
- It contains a mix of fiber and protein, which both take awhile to digest and help you feel full
- It’s minimally-processed and low in added sugar, salt, and saturated fat
- Ideally, it contains a fruit or vegetable
The best snacks are the ones you pack yourself and always have on hand when hunger strikes. Good snack choices include:
- 1 medium apple and 1 tablespoons natural peanut or almond butter
- 1 cup sliced veggies and 2 tablespoons hummus
- Homemade trail mix: 2 tablespoons almonds, 1 tablespoon raisins, 1 teaspoon semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 15 Wheat Thins crackers and 1 Laughing Cow cheese wedge
- 1 Kashi granola bar and 15 grapes
- 1 string cheese and ½ cup sliced cantaloupe
- 1 low-fat fruit-on-the-bottom Greek yogurt and 1 teaspoon slivered almonds
While the snacks listed above may not fit some people’s typical definition of the term, they’re sure to taste good and power you through until your next meal. Snacking is really an important part of weight loss and weight maintenance, as it can help prevent you from getting too hungry in between meals and overdoing it when it finally comes time to eat. If your body tells you it needs food in between your regularly-scheduled meals, it’s perfectly okay to reach for a healthy snack – as long as it fits the requirements listed above, it shouldn’t sabotage your weight loss or healthy eating plan.
Now, what about the foods that many people consider “snacks” – cookies, chips, candy, crackers, and most other goodies that come in a box? By my definition, these aren’t snacks at all; rather, I consider them “treats.” Treats contain little nutritional value and normally don’t help stabilize your blood sugar or keep you feeling full in between meals. Treats are not what you want to reach for when mid-afternoon hunger strikes. There is some good news about treats, however – they can be a regular part of your daily routine, as long as you consume them in moderation. Almost any healthy diet has room for 200 “treat calories” each day, which means you can enjoy your daily candy bar or bag of potato chips – just as long as you don’t eat more than 200 calories’ worth of these items in any given day, and you save them for times when you want something to eat. Stick to the healthier selections above when you feel that you need food – your body will thank you for making the right choice!