The good, the bad, and the delicious
By Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN
Americans love to snack, but snacking on the right foods is the hinge of good or bad health. According to a study conducted by the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, the number of snacking occasions per day and calories in snacks has increased substantially over the past few decades. However, research shows that eating frequently (every two to three hours) during the day gives your body a steady energy stream and staves off excessive calorie loading, which helps with weight management.
“Incorporating nutrient-packed snacks into your day plays a large role in your overall health,” explains Nick Wernimont, founder of Factor 75, a Chicago-based healthy-meal delivery service for active people. Founded on the research-based claim that 75 percent of fitness results comes from what you eat, Factor 75 offers its customers a supply of lean proteins, low-glycemic carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats along with a dose of aromatic, antioxidant-rich herbs and spices in its daily meal and snack offerings.
While it’s a no-brainer for active people to regularly snack, research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in February 2012 reveals that regular snackers—regardless of their fitness levels—tend to eat better overall. Researchers examined how snacks affected the overall diet quality of 11,209 adults aged 20 years and older who participated in the 1999 – 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Using the Healthy Eating Index–2005, a questionnaire used to measure how people’s diets compare to the federal dietary guidelines, the researchers scored the snack food intake of the participants and found that conscious, regular snacking made a positive impact by adding nutrient-rich calories from fruit, whole grains, milk, and healthy oils from nuts and seeds to everyday eating. Therefore, people were not just snacking on empty calories that provide no nutrients, but high-quality, nutritious foods that sustain health.
Bridging the Gap with Good Nutrition
While there are no science-based dietary recommendations regarding the practice of snacking as of yet, nutrition experts advise that the ideal amount of calories you need from daily snacks depends on how many calories your body burns to maintain your normal weight and activity levels. Keep in mind, the more energy you exert, the more calories are needed for energy balance. Optimal daily caloric intake takes into account gender, age, weight and activity level.
“We factor in calories from snacks as well as liquids when tailoring individual meal plans,” says Wernimont. For example, less active people may only need a 100-calorie snack in-between meals, while more active people need a substantial bridge to the next meal with a 200-calorie snack. Ideally, snack calories should supply nutrient-dense fuel to get you to the next meal. But not too much; you don’t want your snacking to cause weight gain.
Snacks Are Real Food
Real whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, skim milk, low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheeses, lean meats and beans make great snacks.
“Keep in mind that although snacks are an opportunity to sneak more nutrition into our diets, the extra calories can also sneak up on you. Snacking can help if your next meal is delayed or to fuel physical activities,” advises Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Studies have shown that it’s easy to fall prey to food that is in close range or right in front of you at a checkout counter, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that any old calories will do. Snacks should count toward fueling your body well, too.
Beware of foods that don’t pack a nutritious punch like sugar-filled granola and cereal bars, salty chips and refined white-flour crackers, cookies and muffins.” Most importantly, try to get more nutrition into those calories by choosing nutrient-rich foods that are good sources of protein, fiber, vitamins and/or minerals,” says Dobbins. Also, eating snacks at consistent times every day, such as two hours after breakfast, lunch and dinner, will keep your metabolism humming along as well as staving off the cravings for convenient, less-nutritious foods.