Expert tips on healthy snacking

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published July 30, 2021

Key Takeaways

Most people enjoy snacking, and partake for a variety of reasons. Satiating hunger is an obvious one. Snacking can also serve as a meal replacement or nutritional boost for athletes, adults, or kids in need. Snacks can also be an occasional “free pass” to eat salty, sweet, or indulgent foods, like a candy bar. And, eating in between meals can also appeal to emotional states, such as stress, boredom, sadness, and even happiness.

“We often think of snacks as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on when we eat, what we eat, and why we eat,” said Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “When chosen well, snacks can help curb hunger and fill in the foods and nutrients that we can’t [eat] at mealtimes. Snacks offer a way to eat more of the foods we don’t get enough of—like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat/fat-free dairy.”

In fact, the advice to avoid snacks altogether is considered a nutrition myth today by many health experts. In an exclusive interview with MDLinx, Maples shares tips to keep your snacking habit a healthy one.

Time your intake

If you’re worried that snacks will spoil your appetite for meals, consider timing, according to Maples.

“Enjoy a small snack if the next meal is only 2-3 hours away, but, if the next meal is 4-5 hours away, maybe eat a bigger snack—with carbohydrates, fat, protein, and at least two or three food groups. But, if the next meal is only an hour or so away, learn to wait to eat at the mealtime instead. If getting ravenously hungry an hour or so before a meal is a chronic problem, adjust your mealtimes or plan for a snack in between the meals. For instance, someone who eats lunch around noon but then doesn’t eat dinner till 7 pm would do well to plan for a mini-meal or a snack mid-afternoon,” she advised.

Choose ‘tooth-friendly’ snacks

Because regular snacking can lead to cavities, it’s a good idea to choose snacks that go easy on your teeth.

“The longer teeth come into contact with food, the longer the bacteria can produce acids that erode teeth,” said Maples. “That’s especially true for foods with carbohydrates and sugar. To help, eat the whole snack at once, instead of nibbling or grazing. Choose foods that aren’t sticky. Brush your teeth (or at least rinse with water) after a snack. Or, maybe enjoy cheese, which can help protect against cavity formation.”

Pick nutritious options

Snacks earn a negative reputation when they involve over-indulging or they lack any nutritious value. To counter these influences, carefully consider the composition of your snacks, according to Maples.

“Snacks get a bad reputation when they promote overeating—or when they add nutrients that we get too much of, such as calories, sugar, salt, saturated fats. One solution is to moderate the portion size of the high-calorie/fat/sugar/salt snack foods—or to switch up what you choose for snacks, choosing indulgent snacks less often,” she stated.

“Snacks can seriously dilute the quality of our diets. Americans are overweight but underfed. We get too many calories but we still don’t get the vitamins and minerals that we need for optimal health. Advertising tells us that certain foods are ‘snack foods.’ But, those snack foods are squeezing out good nutrition. Poor quality food choices rob us twice—once we eat them and then a second time when those calories replace calories in more nutritious foods, which would have come packed with more nutrition,” she added.

Instead, think about eating healthy snacks like clementines, frozen grapes, apple slices, baby carrots, sliced cucumbers dipped into hummus, popcorn, rice pudding, whole grain crackers, string cheese, vanilla yogurt, or a glass of chocolate milk, she suggested.

Structure snack time

Snacks are not meant to be consumed ad libitum, according to Maples.

“Don’t provide snacks on-demand—to yourself or to others like kids. Instead, provide snacks and meals in a structured pattern. Plan snacks midway between two meals, so hunger is more manageable. Structuring meal and snack times (and eating regularly without grazing) solves that worry. Kids and adults learn to deal with a little hunger and will then come to the table hungry. That way, they can eat until satisfied and then again last till the next scheduled meal or snack,” she said. 

“Structure meal and snack times. Don’t graze in between. Instead, if you suddenly think about snacking, wait until the next scheduled meal or snack. When you do eat, sit down to eat the meal or snack. Eat until satisfied, then stop. There’s no need to ‘finish what’s on your plate.’ Then don’t eat again until your next scheduled meal or snack. If you are craving a snack, tell yourself you can eat it if you want, but just wait till the next scheduled meal or snack,” she continued.

Control snack portions

According to Maples, it’s important to avoid the consumption of multiple serving sizes of snacks in one sitting. “Skip mega portions of snacks. If a small portion of an indulgent food is not satisfying, pair it with a more filling food, such as adding a glass of milk when you grab a cookie. It may help to pre-portion your food into single-serve snack sizes or buy individual snack sizes to manage the portion sizes to meet your nutrition goals.”

Maples also cautioned not to eat out of the container. “Instead, portion out the amount you want to eat, then sit down, relax and enjoy the taste and texture of that food. Overeating is easy when you eat mindlessly, nibbling while scrolling through your phone or watching your TV or computer screen. Instead, focus on enjoying the food you’ve chosen. Start by putting the food in a plate, bowl, or glass instead of eating from the package.” 

On a final note, Maples encourages all snackers to check food labels. For instance, if a package contains two portions and you eat it all, then you have doubled the calories, sugar, salt, and solid fats. Keep in mind that many foods are packaged in larger portions than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Want to learn more about snacking? Check out ‘Healthy foods’ that aren’t as healthy as you think at MDLinx

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