Nearly 100 percent of Americans in every age group eat at least one snack every day, and the average American eats an average of 580 calories a day in snacks. Snacking doesn’t have to be tied to weight gain or health problems, and it can be an important source of nutrients—if we snack wisely.
The best snacks for nutritional content are whole vegetables and fruits or high-protein whole foods such as nuts, beans and dairy. But sometimes nearly every one of us craves a salty, crunchy or sweet treat to satisfy our cravings. When we do, we can still make wiser decisions than hitting a bag of potato chips or candy filled with artificial ingredients and fillers rather than food. Armed with a little knowledge about healthy snacking, we can enjoy a treat that’s better for us but still satisfying.
Making Sense of Food Labels for Healthy Snacking
When shopping for any groceries—including all packaged foods—check out a product’s ingredients list first. Do you recognize each ingredient? Hundreds of synthetic additives, preservatives and colorings are used to process our food to make it taste better, look more appealing and last longer. If you don’t know what’s inside a package, don’t eat it. You don’t have to give up the foods you love, just give up the toxic ingredients. Once you’re satisfied that the ingredient list is made up of actual food, look for the following on the package’s nutrition label:
Calories: Junk food, by its nature, is filled with sugar and/or other empty calories, providing little or no nutritional value. When considering the value of a snack, be mindful of the serving size. How big is it and how many are you likely to eat in one sitting? How much nutritional value—fiber, protein and vitamins—are you getting out of your caloric investment?
Fat: Fats are an essential part of our diets. But the type of fat is far more important than the amount. Unsaturated fats are typically plant-based—think olive or flax seed oil. Saturated fats are typically animal fats such as lard or chicken skin. (A couple of exceptions are palm oil and coconut oil, which consist mostly of saturated fats.) Since the 1950s, we have been told that unsaturated fats, which raise high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol while lowering low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol, are more desirable than saturated fats, which raise both good and bad cholesterol. However, while unsaturated fats are almost certainly good for us, more recent science is showing that saturated fats may not be as harmful to our health as we once thought. The jury is still out. But one type of fat is undoubtedly bad for us: partially hydrogenated or trans fat. This unnatural, processed fat has been proven to lead to heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and obesity. Even foods labeled “no trans fat” or with “0 trans fat” on the nutrition label may contain small amounts; to avoid it completely, avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients.
Sodium: Sodium can cause water retention and affect blood pressure, raising your risk of stroke. Home cooking represents only 10 to 20 percent of most people’s sodium intake—table salt in meals accounts for 5 to 10 percent, and 10 percent is found in plant and animal foods. Most (75 percent) of the sodium we consume comes from convenience foods such as canned and processed foods, restaurant food and fast food. Many experts recommend limiting daily intake to 1,500 milligrams (mg) from all sources—far less than the FDA’s current maximum of 2,400 mg. You can easily exceed both limits without ever using a salt shaker if you don’t keep track of sodium in processed foods you eat.
Fiber: Eating fiber-rich foods not only helps to regulate our digestive system and blood sugar but also is a low-calorie way to fill up. Most Americans consume far less fiber than they should. The average diet provides about 12 grams of fiber each day, but female adults should consume 35 grams, and males, 38 grams.
Protein: Protein-rich foods provide us with energy, help keep our immune systems working well, and maintain the health of our muscles, bones, skin, hair and more. The more than 10,000 proteins found in our bodies are built by about 20 amino acids that we must get from our diets. Animal protein sources are “complete,” meaning they contain all the essential amino acids. Other protein sources such as nuts, beans and whole grains come combined with numerous vitamins and minerals, but they lack one or more essential amino acids. Therefore, vegetarians and vegans must eat a variety of protein-containing foods in order to get the amino acids needed to build new protein. Most adults on a 2,000-calorie diet need about 70 grams of protein per day.
Sugar: Junk food is often synonymous with sugar. Here are some simple rules about the sweet stuff: Avoid high-fructose corn syrup; always combine sugar (or any form of carbohydrate) with some protein (or a lot of fiber) to prevent spikes in blood sugar; and look for hidden sources of sugar on food labels. Cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, brown rice syrup and words ending in –ose are just a few of the many forms of sugar found in food products.
Not-So-Sweet Artificial Sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners, among them acesulfame potassium (or Ace-K), sucralose (Splenda) and aspartame, are 200 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. Used in thousands of products, artificial sweeteners have been linked to numerous adverse effects including headaches, dizziness, mood changes, memory loss and anxiety. Whenever possible, it’s best to avoid artificial sweeteners.
Adapted from Unjunk Your Junk Food by Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer, creators of Naturally Savvy
Healthy Snack Recipes
Baked Veggie Chips
Whole Wheat-Tofu Chocolate Chip Cookies
Why You Might be Craving…
We reach for certain types of food for a reason. Do you crave salt or do you prefer the sweet stuff? It’s very likely that the reason has to do with your body and its needs. Below are some possible explanations as to why you are reaching for certain types of junk food.
Low thyroid function
Allergy or intolerance
Low blood sugar
Make Your Own Trail Mix
For long-lasting energy and healthy snacking, try making your own trail mix. You can control the amount of salt and sugar by choosing unsweetened fruits and unsalted nuts. Combine equal parts of any of these dried or roasted foods: nuts, dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, blueberries, bananas, etc.), chocolate or carob chips, peanut butter chips, sunflower seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and dried, unsweetened coconut flakes.