Healthy Snacking: How to Unjunk Your Junk Food

By getting educated and shopping wisely, you can eat better—even when it comes to satisfying junk food cravings.

| September/October 2012

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.

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