For those who get hungry between meals, a healthier approach starts with recognizing your body's signals before your brain starts flashing images of chocolate-chip cookies -- and responding, not with guilt, but with a nutritious snack. By keeping blood sugar levels steady, says Keri Glassman, R.D., author of "The Snack Factor Diet," "snacking keeps your metabolism up and your cravings down."
As for the fear that adding snacks will lead to weight gain, those who snack smartly -- eating small amounts of healthy foods -- often find they eat less later in the day, says Lori Reamer, R.D., nutrition director for Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Snacking helps you coast into your meal versus accelerate into your meal."
By following a few simple principles, you can transform your relationship to snacking and, potentially, eat more healthfully all day long.
Seven Ways to Eat More Healthfully All Day
Redefine Your Terms
Many conventional snack foods, like chips and cookies, are low in nutrients and high in quick-burning carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. To start snacking healthfully, says Reamer, think less about conventional, processed snack foods and more about foods that would fit into a healthy eating plan. A small portion of leftover beans and brown rice makes a healthy snack; fruit, nuts, and yogurt are great choices, too.
For best results, combine food groups. "Protein and fat digest a little slower than straight carbohydrates do, so a combination will help to keep you fuller longer," says Glassman. "They also add to satisfaction, which can increase satiety." Ideally, you'd have a healthy source of carbohydrates, fat, and protein -- perhaps apple slices (carbohydrate) and 2 teaspoons of almond butter (fat and protein) -- but having two out of three works fine. For example, combine berries (carbohydrate) and low-fat yogurt (protein) or leftover turkey (protein) and high-fiber crackers (carbohydrate).
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 a.m. and 4 p.m. "For most people, it's the afternoon-into-evening time when things start to fall apart," says Glassman. "If you are going to make just one change, add an afternoon snack." Timing your snacks will keep you clear-headed enough so that you don't succumb to the notion that Baby Ruth candy bars are good for you because they have nuts in them.
Choose Foods You Like
You may have read about the nutritional virtues of cottage cheese, but if you don't like it, forget about it. Think instead about foods that bring you pleasure. If you like gooey snacks, try a slice of tomato on a fiber cracker with a small piece of cheddar cheese melted on top. If you want something crunchy but low in calories, celery sticks may be your thing. Pleasure and satisfaction contribute to satiety, says Reamer. "Don't go with the most obvious options if they aren't pleasing to you."
Plan Your Portions
When you're delving into a box of crackers or a big bag of almonds, it's hard to stop. To avoid overeating, portion out your snacks ahead of time and put them in sandwich bags or small containers. And remember that Mother Nature has a thing for packaging. "Think of a banana," says Reamer. "For most, one banana would be a serving. You probably wouldn't think to eat the whole bunch."
The ideal size of a snack will vary depending on how many calories you need in a day and the size of your other meals. As a guideline, shoot for a snack in the 100 to 180 calorie range, says Glassman. (For example, try 10 cherry tomatoes and one string cheese stick; a handful of baby carrots and 10 almonds; a peeled and sliced cucumber with a quarter of an avocado, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and salt to taste.)
Don't Try to Be Perfect
Follow the nutrition tips above whenever possible, but remember that there's a spectrum of possibilities. Some people give up on planning snacks because they don't always manage to have steel-cut oatmeal with walnuts and organic raspberries on hand, says Glassman. Instant oatmeal packets and drinkable yogurts aren't perfect snacks, but they're fast and easy to stock. And if having them around keeps you away from the doughnut drive-through, they're a step in the right direction, she says.
Keeping a few quick, simple snacks in your purse, such as turkey jerky or a box of raisins, will help keep you on track. Again, they may not be ideal, but they're far better than hitting the potato chips or not eating at all.
Embrace Your Hunger
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 turkey sandwich for half the calories and been more satisfied. But in their minds, a turkey sandwich counts as real eating."
Pay Attention at Mealtime
Snacktime calories aren't freebies, so you may need to adjust your mealtime portions. Reamer recommends following the Japanese dictum hara hachi bu, which translates to "eat until you're 80 percent full." "By learning to stop right at the edge of fullness, we can trim our portion sizes," she says. "And this is easy to do if you know that when you're hungry, you can eat again." Embracing snacking means giving yourself permission to listen to your body -- an essential part of any long-term healthy eating plan.
Text by Celina Ottaway