Snack Smart

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A walk down the aisles of a grocery store can tell you a lot about the way Americans eat. There’s been a boom in snack foods, whose sales are three times what they were 10 years ago. And it’s no wonder. With our on-the-go lifestyles and easy access to tasty food, Americans snack more than anyone else in the world. Three-quarters of us eat at least one snack a day, and a third of us nosh four or more times a day. But is this a healthy way to eat?

Snacking’s Strengths
Research studies that look at the timing of food intake show that people who spread their calories throughout the day instead of eating three square meals derive many health benefits. Their triglyceride levels are lower, their cholesterol levels – especially their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels – are reduced, their blood sugar levels are steadier, and they experience less hunger. These benefits come just from changing when you eat, not what or how much you eat. Having mini-meals seems to be good for you.

Stumbling Blocks
Unfortunately, most people don’t replace breakfast, lunch and dinner with nutritious mini-meals. Instead, they eat their regular meals and they nibble, too – usually on heavily processed snack foods that are low in nutrients and high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, salt and calories. Even those who skip a meal fill up later on less nutritious food. No wonder obesity rates are climbing!

It can be hard to adjust our lives to accommodate mini-meals. Lunch hour and dinner hour are well established in our work schedules – and so are the donuts for coffeebreaks. We sleep late on the weekend and go out for a brunch with more calories than breakfast and lunch put together. Dieters exercise their will power by eating lightly all day only to have twice as much at dinner. And when we’re hungry or bored, it’s so easy to grab a handful of snack food or a pre-packaged treat. We need some workable strategies to maintain our weight.

Savvy Strategies
If you can have a series of healthful mini-meals every day, great! Most of us can’t rearrange our lives that much, but we can learn to make more healthful choices. Here are some tips for getting started:

• Check your portion sizes. You may be eating healthful foods, but eating too much. If you are snacking, your meals need to be smaller.
• Keep a record of what you eat and when you eat it. This will give you a better idea of how much you are actually eating and what time of day you need to have some planned snacks.
• Stock up on nutritious foods that you like. Be realistic about it. People eat for taste far more than they eat for nutrition, so choose the most nutritious foods that you will actually eat for a snack. You will probably never snack on broccoli, but you might munch on a fresh apple or baked potato.
• Keep nutritious snacks easy to grab. Prepackage homemade snacks, freeze leftovers in small portions to microwave for a mini-meal, divide a package of nuts or crackers into single-serving snackbags. The time it takes to do this will save time later.
• Keep meals and snacks simple. People eat more when there is more variety present. It’s fine to fill up on six kinds of vegetables, but don’t offer several tempting high-calorie foods for a single meal or snack.
• Stick a list of healthful snacks on the fridge. When you are in a hurry, it will help remind you of good choices.
• Young children need to eat frequently because their stomachs are small. Their snacks truly should be mini-meals of highly nutritious food.

Super Snacks
Don’t let the food industry tell you what a snack is! Mealtime foods tend to be more nutritious, so avoid packaged snack foods, and think mini-meals when you snack.

• Soup – Go for noncreamy soups. They are good for you, fill you up, and take a while to eat because they are hot. They’re wonderful sipped from a mug!
• Yogurt – High in calcium and protein, yogurt is a satisfying snack. Choose fat-free or lowfat yogurt and mix in your own fruit. Read labels, as some yogurts have a lot of sugar added.
• Leftovers – If you serve nutritious dinners, plan on leftovers for a snack.
• Half a sandwich – Top a slice of whole grain bread or half pita pocket with lean fixings and munch away.
• Baked potato or sweet potato – These are easy to prepare in the office or home.
• Oatmeal – This doesn’t have to be a breakfast-only food. Jazz it up with spices and dried fruit.

By Cheryl Sullivan, MA, RD.

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