by Lisa Wendall – Eating Well
We all love a good snack: Something to hold us over between breakfast and lunch. A quick pick-me-up when we hit that 3 p.m. slump. And, of course, dessert after dinner. If we don’t choose the right types of snacks, though, these between-meal treats can cause us to pack on the pounds, feel sluggish and sick, and, ironically, develop cravings for more of the same.
But when done right, snacks can be a secret weapon against weight gain and unhealthy habits. Here’s what you need to know about eating more, weighing less, and getting a handle on nutritious (and satisfying) snacking.
1. Count the Calories
“Snacks can make or break your diet,” says New York City-based nutritionist Rachel Meltzer Warren, R.D. “For most people, if you eat your meals three to five hours apart then you really don’t need snacks to tide you over. But if you go for long stretches between meals — or tend to feel ravenous when you get to dinner — then eating a well-balanced snack can really help.”
The right amount of calories in a snack depends on your daily caloric needs, how active you are, how often you snack, and how many calories you take in at each meal. But a good number to shoot for is probably between 150 and 300, says Meltzer Warren.
2. Choose Combos Wisely
“The perfect snack has some carbs for quick energy, and some protein to keep you satisfied until your next meal,” says Meltzer Warren. “Bonus points if you choose a snack with some fiber as well, since that will help you feel full and keep you from turning your snack into a fourth meal.”
She suggests pairing foods like an apple or pear with a yogurt or some whole-grain cereal sprinkled in.
3. Watch Portion Sizes
Hundred-calorie snack packs are convenient and help prevent overeating, but they can still contain unhealthy food loaded with trans fats, preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup — not to mention, they use a lot of unnecessary packaging. (Plus, research has shown that people tend to eat more than one pack anyway, thus defeating their purpose!)
Instead, make your own snacks from natural, whole foods whenever possible. Leftovers can be a great source of afternoon nibbles, but watch the portion sizes: Shoot for 1 ounce cheese; 2 to 3 ounces fish; 3 or 4 pieces of dried fruit; or 1/4 cup nuts.
4. Eat Frequently
Several small meals or snacks throughout the day can keep your blood sugar stable and keep your metabolism running at its most efficient, which, in turn, can help keep your body from holding onto excess weight.
It can also keep you clearheaded and focused; you’ll avoid that ravenous feeling between meals, or the “food coma” feeling that comes from stuffing yourself at lunch or dinner. (Which, incidentally, you’ll be less likely to do if you’ve had a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.)
5. Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Figuring out your “hunger clock” will help you preempt strong cravings. What time do you start calculating the number of feet to the pizza place on the corner, or start feeling grumpy and distracted? If it’s 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., plan your snacks for 11 and 4.
“For most people, it’s the afternoon-into-evening time when things start to fall apart,” says Keri Glassman, R.D., author of “The Snack Factor Diet.” “If you are going to make just one change, add an afternoon snack.” Timing your snacks will keep you clearheaded enough so that you don’t succumb to the notion that Baby Ruths are good for you because they have nuts in them.
6. Know What You’re Eating
Many people deny their hunger and treat snacking as a naughty indulgence. When people are trying to avoid eating, they end up not eating as healthfully, says Glassman.
“They’ll go for the vending machines or start eating out of a pretzel bag because they think it’s not ‘real eating.’ Meanwhile, they’ve taken in 400 calories worth of pretzels when they could have had half a tuna fish sandwich for half the calories and been more satisfied. But in their minds, a tuna fish sandwich counts as real eating.”
7. Don’t Forget About Drinks
Mindlessly consuming liquid calories is one of the easiest ways to blow a healthy eating plan: An afternoon gourmet coffee drink or 20-ounce soda can be just as detrimental to your diet as a cupcake or a brownie — and chances are, it’s got little redeeming nutritional value.
Beverages can also play a positive role in your snacking strategy, however. Often, what you think is a hunger pang might just be a sign of thirst. Try sipping water with lemon to see if your cravings subside. Herbal Teas, may help rev your metabolism and help you burn calories more efficiently.
8. Snack Smart On the Go
Even if you’re pressed for time, you can still snack smart. Skip vending-machine fare and pick up a pack of nuts, wasabi peas, or dehydrated soybeans — or pack carrot sticks and celery with a small container of hummus, baba ghanoush, or caponata.
9. Eat Before Events
“The right snack at the right time can do a lot of good,” says Meltzer Warren. “I always recommend clients eat a smart snack before heading out to a wedding or another event where copious amounts of good food will be served. Doing so helps keep your hunger in check, which will keep you from overdosing on hors d’oeuvres.”
It’s also a good idea to always have something to eat before you go grocery shopping, she adds. “Food shopping hungry is a fast way to get all sorts of things you don’t need in your cart!”
10. Travel with Food
A vacation can set off a dietary bender that leaves you feeling greasy, lethargic, and a few pounds heavier by the time you return home: You’re faced with different (often less healthy) food options, you’re in a more indulgent mind-set, and your regular eating routine is totally off-schedule.
But planning ahead can help keep you relatively on track, so you can save your indulgences for those truly rewarding situations. Pack healthy snacks for airplane flights. Take a cooler along on road trips. And if you’re staying in a hotel, request a refrigerator so you can store fresh fruit and vegetables.
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