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Snacking can play a role in a healthy lifestyle.
Use caution and plan snacks ahead to avoid overeating.
Choose snacks that provide carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
If done right, snacking can help you reach your body composition and health goals
Like many topics in the realm of nutrition, a quick search on the Internet about snacks will give you pages of conflicting recommendations. Some sources recommend frequent snacking, and some demonize snacking altogether. Even the word “snack” seems to carry a negative connotation.
Perhaps this is because of the common association between snacking and mindless eating, or the assumption that “snack” often refers to candy or salty processed foods. The idea that snacking can’t be part of a healthy diet is a common misconception. Although it’s true that snacking can cause weight gain, it all comes down to doing it the right way.
Benefits of Snacks
Fullness and Satiety
Snacking may help you stay full between meals. Feeling satisfied between meals helps avoid excessive hunger at mealtime, which therefore prevents overeating.
Specific types of snacks are more likely to help you feel less hungry between meals. In fact, one study found that almonds had more influence on satiety when eaten as snacks, rather than with a meal. Another study found that eating high-protein yogurt promoted satiety more than chocolate or crackers as snacks.
Eating a high-protein diet has been shown to increase your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is due to the process of gluconeogenesis, which forms glucose from non-carbohydrate substrates such as glycerol from fat and amino acids from protein. This process uses a lot of energy, meaning your body may burn more calories when you eat a high-protein snack.
If you’re working to build muscle, you have likely heard that a high-protein diet is a way to go. This is because when you exercise, muscle is broken down. Protein from your diet contains amino acids that repair and rebuild Skeletal Muscle Mass.
It may be difficult for some to meet the high protein needs needed to build muscle. Eating high-protein snacks can help contribute to meet protein recommendations to build Skeletal Muscle Mass.
A snack is a perfect way to replenish your body’s energy after a tough workout. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy, and protein helps repair muscle fibers that were broken down during the workout.
For optimal results, choose a post-workout snack that offers a balance of carbohydrates and protein.
Components of a Healthy Snack
Depending on your activity levels and goals, your protein needs may range from 0.8 – 2.0 grams per kilogram body weight. If you’re highly active and looking to build muscle, your needs will be on the higher end of the spectrum. Some people struggle to meet a high protein need with meals alone, which is why snacks are important.
Not all protein is equal. Animal protein (meat, dairy, etc.) and plant-based protein (from beans, tofu, etc.) look a little different when they’re broken down in the body.
Basically, protein is broken down into smaller parts called amino acids. There are nine “essential” amino acids that must be present to make a complete protein. Most animal protein provides all essential amino acids and therefore a convenient source for protein.
However, most plant-based protein does not provide all essential amino acids, so it can be harder to hit protein demands for the body. However, it’s easy to create complete proteins by eating a variety of complementary plant-based proteins. This makes plant-based protein a great alternative for those who have a different lifestyle or dietary preferences.
Carbohydrates serve as the preferred source of energy in the body. Eating enough carbohydrates is especially important if your activity level is high.
Like protein, not all carbohydrates are equal. Choose complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, and vegetables as often as possible. These foods are high in fiber and other nutrients, and they are broken down more slowly by the body. Due to this, complex carbohydrates can serve as great snacks to help subside hunger until your next meal.
However, for both pre or post-workout snacks, simple carbohydrates (which the body can break down quicker) can prove to be very beneficial as they can help to provide you quick easy energy for your workout, as well as help you to recover faster post-workout.
First and foremost, it is not necessary to avoid fat if your goal is fat loss. Researchers now know that eating fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat. In fact, fat may actually benefit the body in many ways. Fat may play a role in preventing chronic disease. One meta-analysis found that increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish significantly increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides. A separate meta-analysis found that increased polyunsaturated fat intake reduced common markers of inflammation in the body.
Choose snacks that contain healthy fats – specifically, polyunsaturated fats. These fats are essential, meaning the only way to get them is through your diet.
The Fine Line Between A Snack and A Meal
Without proper planning, the calories you consume from snacks can really add up. In fact, a recent survey by the USDA found that snacking contributes an average of 586 calories for men and 421 calories for women per day.
Remember, weight loss, gain, and maintenance essentially comes down to calories in vs. calories out. In other words, eating snacks that are too high in calories, or snacking too often can easily derail your health goals.
Therefore, it’s important to know what a snack really consists of, as well as what to look for on a label and how to plan ahead.
Snacks may range in calories, depending on your overall goals. For many, 100-200 calories is a good target for snacks. People with higher calorie needs may prefer a higher calorie snack.Likewise, the number of snacks you eat per day depends on your personal needs and goals.It’s best to plan ahead, and factor snacks into your overall meal plan to avoid overeating. Remember to check labels and measure out snack portions.
Types of Healthy Snacks
There are countless snack products that are marketed as healthy. However, reading the label proves these snacks are anything but. Product labels are often misleading, so it’s important to learn the basics of building a healthy snack. Here are some examples.
Eggs are a classic choice for breakfast. However, they also make a great snack that will keep you full and help you eat less. Eggs are a great source of protein and fat, as well as a healthy array of vitamins and minerals.
Hard-boiled eggs are easy to prepare ahead of time and portable.
Like eggs, cheese is a great go-to snack for protein and fat. However, it’s important to watch the serving size if you’re limiting calories. Cottage cheese is highest in protein (around 10 grams per ½ cup), but cream cheese and cheese sticks may also be good options. Pair cheese with a serving of fruit or a vegetable such as grape tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, apples or pears.
It’s no secret that meat is an excellent source of protein. Jerky is convenient and portable, making it a great way to pack in extra protein throughout the day. If eating beef jerky, the best option is grass-fed. Keep in mind that some jerky is high in sodium if you are trying to limit your intake.
Greek yogurt is a great option if you’re looking for a high-protein, grab-and-go snack. Keep in mind that many yogurts are high in sugar. Choose yogurt with less than 10 grams of sugar per serving, or go for plain yogurt to avoid sugar altogether. Sweeten yogurt with Stevia if needed, or serve with fresh berries or in a smoothie.
Veggies with Hummus or Guacamole
Hummus is a great source of plant-based protein, balanced with carbohydrates, fat, and fiber. Specifically, the olive oil in hummus provides a healthy dose of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats. Guacamole is a delicious source of healthy fats.
Both dips are fairly calorie-dense, so be mindful of portion sizes. Pair them with carrot sticks, bell peppers or celery.
Edamame is an excellent source of plant-based protein. It’s also high in fiber and antioxidants while being low in carbohydrates. Frozen, shelled edamame is easy to keep on hand and prepare. Eat this snack plain, or tossed in chili sauce for some spice.
Nuts are filling due to their fat content. However, nuts are also balanced in protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. A little will go a long way, and calories will add up quickly. It’s important to measure out portions of this calorie-dense snack. Pair almonds, walnuts or mixed nuts with a little dark chocolate if you’re craving something sweet.
Fruit sometimes gets a bad rep because of its low protein and high carbohydrate content. However, fruit is a natural nutrition powerhouse that provides fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals while being low in calories. Pair fruit with nut butter, cottage cheese or yogurt to incorporate protein for a low-calorie snack.
It doesn’t get much easier than tuna when it comes to snacking. Packets of tuna are easy, portable and fairly inexpensive. They are also low in calories, high in protein and a great source of polyunsaturated fat. Snack on tuna on its own, or with a few whole-grain crackers.
Drinking a protein shake is one of the easiest ways to get the most protein for the least amount of calories. Many protein powders can be mixed with water, making this a very portable snack option as well.
There are several types of protein powder in the health and fitness market. Keep in mind that whey protein has been shown to help with muscle gain and fat loss. However, plant-based protein powders are a good alternative for those with other dietary requirements.
**Sources of nutrition information for all snacks obtained from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/**
Snack Smart and Reap the Benefits
Snacking can be part of a healthy lifestyle if done correctly. Choose nutrient-dense snacks that provide carbohydrate, fat, and protein for the most benefit, and pay attention to portion sizes.
Breanna Woods is a Registered Dietitian with over 5 years of clinical experience. She is passionate about giving her clients the tools they need to build a healthy lifestyle.