Healthy Snacking 101

by | Jan 14, 2013

Photo by zlakfoto

Americans love to snack. We snack at work, at parties, at the movies, in the car… pretty much anywhere we can get a few fingers free to grab a bite of food. As a nation we’ve elevated snacking to an art form, and on the surface it seems like it has no boundaries.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with snacking. Having a small bite to eat between meals is a great way to give your metabolism a little kick and keep you from becoming ravenously hungry later, which can lead to overeating. Snacking is also fun, and can be a great way to socialize and connect with others.

But there is a difference between snacking and compulsive, emotional or hormonal eating. There is also a difference between snacking and bingeing.

The Purpose of Snacking

Snacking always has a purpose. If we were less emotional beings, it would almost always serve to prevent hunger. But since our motivations for eating tend to be complex, identifying all the reasons we snack is important in helping us decide how to approach it.

1. Regain attention

Being hungry is exceptionally uncomfortable. Knowing it will still be awhile before the next meal, a small snack is a great way to buy a few hours of focus and attention, allowing us to be more productive without disrupting our schedule.

2. Curb overeating

As mentioned above, snacking can also be important in preventing overeating. When you’re starving, your eyes can easily become larger than your stomach. And since it takes at least 20 minutes for your satisfied stomach to communicate to your brain via your bloodstream that you are no longer starving, that time can be the difference between a sensible meal and a binge. It’s best to avoid becoming deliriously hungry in the first place by having a small snack in the interim.

3. Socializing

Between meal eating can be initiated for less utilitarian purposes as well. For instance, snacking is a fabulous epicenter for a social event. As many awesome organizations have discovered, food is a great leveler and platform for fostering interaction and collaboration, a value far greater than the price of a cheese plate.

4. Tasty taste

Sometimes the best reason for a snack is that food just tastes good. Maybe you didn’t anticipate your officemate bringing in samples of her mom’s famous baklava, but some foods are just worth making a little extra room for. This kind of snacking may bring in some extra calories, but it isn’t the end of the world so long as you adjust for it later (a slightly smaller dinner or longer workout).

5. Cravings

Food cravings are the least awesome reason for snacking. They can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, mental disquietude, and can seem to come out of nowhere. Though giving into cravings sounds like a bad idea, attempting to ignore them can be distracting and often pointless. (How many of you can actually ignore your cravings if the food you want is available? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) So it is better to have a strategy for dealing with cravings rather than waste your time and energy putting off the inevitable.

Goals of Snacking

No matter what your reason for snacking, the goal should always be satiation. If you are hungry, you want to eat enough to regain your attention and avoid later overeating, and that’s it. If you’re snacking at a social event and aren’t hungry, a few bites should be enough to get you chatting. If a mid-day hors d’oeuvre tastes amazing, a bite or two should satisfy your curiosity. If you’re craving something, you want to stop the craving as quickly and effectively as possible.

Snacking should be a clearly defined occurrence, not something that drags out over the course of hours. It helps if your snacks come in defined quantities to prevent mindless eating. Choose foods that are dense and slowly digesting so you feel like you’ve eaten enough and aren’t tempted to return for round two.

Thinking about foods in terms of their macronutrients is rarely useful, but as a rule of thumb the most filling foods tend to have:

  • protein
  • fat
  • fiber
  • water

Or some combination of these. Foods that have a lot of sugar or refined carbohydrates tend to do the opposite, and encourage continuous eating.

When eating for hunger, it is also a good idea to find snacks that are on the healthier side–nutrient dense, whole and unprocessed foods.

Snacking should be enjoyable and mentally satisfying as well. You should love the food that you eat as much as the clothes you wear and books you read. Eating is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Cravings are a different beast, and can often be alleviated without the specific food you think you need. For cravings, healthy options should be your first resort. Low-calorie beverages such as sparkling water or herbal tea can also be effective.

Healthy Snack Ideas

Here are some snack ideas to get you started, but don’t feel limited by this list. Start with foods you enjoy and work from there.

Fruits

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Melon
  • Grapefruit
  • Orange

Nuts

  • Pistachios
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Trailmix
  • Nut butters

Preserved meats (highly processed meats aren’t healthy, but small quantities can be useful for curbing your appetite)

  • Smoked salmon
  • Jerky
  • Charcuterie
  • Sardines

Cheeses

  • String cheese
  • Fancy cheeses

Vegetables

  • Kale chips
  • Carrots
  • Avocado
  • Celery
  • Bell pepper
  • Zucchini

Beans/other protein

  • Hummus
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Boiled eggs

Beverages

  • Sparkling water
  • Tea
  • Tisane (herbal tea)

Sweet tooth

  • Dark chocolate
  • Dried fruit
  • Mint/herbal tea
  • Juice spritzer (mixed with sparkling water)
  • Fruits
  • Fruit/nut bars (e.g. KIND)

What are your favorite healthy snacks?

Originally published December 1, 2010.

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26 Responses to “Healthy Snacking 101”

  1. I’m really digging pears right now! I’m also a huge fan of cashews, which I like to soak and add a little cumin to for extra seasoning. :)

  2. luie says:

    I have a sweet tooth for chocolate, so to avoid eating chocolate every day (which i could easily do) i keep a healthy supply of apples,nectarines ,plums ,bananas ,baby carrots and mixed nuts with dried fruit. i now find myself craving the fruits more than my chocolate.

    • Meg says:

      I allow myself one square of good dark chocolate(approximately one ounce) or a small glass of red wine (4 oz.) every night. Whichever one I choose, I savor slowly. That way I can still feel like I’m allowing myself to have a treat, but it’s 100 calories or less and still has powerful antioxidants. My philosophy is “anything in moderation.” 2 oz. of bacon in large pan of brussel sprouts makes anyone like them!

  3. jean says:

    Sometimes cravings are good. I find that the longer I eat healthier the better feedback I get. The cravings I get now, however, are different from the cravings I had when I ate processed and high carb (sugar, refined carbs) foods regularly. i.e. now I get cravings for eggs not BBQ potato chips!

  4. Great post Darya! It’s always good to get some new snacking ideas. I love a sliced avocado with a little sprinkle of salt. That always hits the spot for me.

  5. Peggy says:

    I’m happy to report that I choose many of these snacks on a regular basis! Great post and information!

  6. AJ says:

    Great and helpful post! Can you please tell me why string cheese is a “good” cheese? And can you also please provide some examples of “fancy” cheeses?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Good point about the string cheese. It is only good if it is pure mozzarella and not a processed cheese with weird additives. It is good because it has fat and protein, and is therefore very satisfying and filling.

      Fancy cheeses are the kinds with foreign names that come in actually wedges or wheels (e.g. pecorino, gruyere, petite basque, etc.). They are never pre-sliced or shredded, and never come in cans or include the word “Whiz” ;)

  7. Corinna says:

    I mix the dark chocolate with macadamia nuts and have chocolate covered mac nuts. Yum! I can get them 2 nuts to a pack so that keeps me from over indulging and it makes it easy to keep them in my purse.
    Cheers,
    Corinna

  8. Stacy Billows says:

    How do you feel about diet drinks? To cut out calories I’ve switched my morning cream with a dab of coffee to a diet pop that has caffiene. I’m seeing the difference in my waistline big time and I like the added focus I get from my AM caffiene but in 2011 I’m trying to eat as much from the Earth as possible. I am already familiar with the recommendations for how much artificial sugar we can have daily, I’m just talking about one medium sized diet Coke from McDonalds.

  9. Maggie Rose says:

    Baba ghanoush topped with toasted pine nuts and scooped up with thick red pepper slices is a favorite of mine. Rich in flavor, satisfying crunch, a little fat to get you feeling full…

    …and you successfully tricked yourself into an extra serving of vegetables that are more satisfying than chips and dip!

  10. What… no corn chips and guac on the list? That’s our fav afternoon snack. ;-)

  11. I can´t remember the last time I ate a (processed, commercial style) potato chip but probably was long time ago. Gladly, I am more into healthy small snacks which usually involves almonds, fresh fruit (apples, pears) and good quality dark chocokate (70%).

  12. Esmerelda says:

    I only seem to want to snack at work, probably due to the combination of boredom and stress that only my job seems to deliver. I’ve found that in order to avoid the siren call of the vending machine, what works best for me is Greek yogurt or Lara bars.

  13. saul says:

    Avocado is a fruit, right?

  14. GOGREEN says:

    Become a vegetarian and you will feel better than you ever thought you possibly could. I used to eat meat a lot but now I have learned the truth, HUMANS ARE HERBIVORES!!! Its science look it up

  15. Dee says:

    These days I’m suffering fom “Mental Disquietude” Hence alot of snackng …,. I need help please!

  16. Emma says:

    Great post. I love snacking on cucumber sticks (great crunch), a small can of tuna or salmon, or a cup of miso soup. If I’m feeling like snacking I will often have a big glass of water, or a cup of coffee and then if I’m still hungry I will eat – but often I’m not.

  17. Craig says:

    My go to snack is Fage yogurt, the full fat variety, preferably with just half the fruit mix added in. Or better yet, sometimes I get the plain variety and add my own strawberries or blueberries to it if possible.

    My wife has started making Kale chips with olive oil and a little salt. Delicious!

  18. Karen says:

    I love using tomatoes as a snack, too! Here’s one I recently found that had my mouth watering:
    http://www.funnytummycafe.com/2013/03/06/parmesan-tomatoes/

  19. curious george says:

    the one thing that gets me is meal planning. how do you plan what you’re gunna bring with you (like what choice of snack) if you’re out and then plan your next meal (liike grocery shop for dinner and cook it) before you know what you feell like having (byy that tim eit’ll be too late youll have to grocery shop and make it. i wanna get organized for my upcoming week and shop and have some stuff cut and ready or make some batches of recipes or something easy? any tips for convenience? or just keep it simple and do veggies and olive oil for dinner? and then have hummous and trailmix as snacks and a good lunch and breakfast ? like how do you make sure your energy equation is balanced?

  20. Leesa says:

    LOVE this post about snacking – Having 2 gradeschoolers I always have snacks ready to go (e.g. sliced fruit/veggies for the kids to eat as we’re walking home from school). My personal favourite snack right now is a handful of walnuts and a few dates. I also try to have muffins available – ones that I make myself to be more nutritious (i.e. half the sugar/honey, 1/4 of the flour replaced with ground flax seeds, and an extra egg for added protein). Thanks!

  21. Mrs. Wilk says:

    these snacks all look pretty boring to me. I can down some nuts, but I can’t stop with just a few.
    I crave the salt.
    Also, fruit really bothers my teeth sometimes.
    I thought maybe there’d be some really interesting ideas here.
    I eat boiled eggs with toast and turkey bacon. I don’t want to use that up for a snack.

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