The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming and the temperature is rising. Now that spring has arrived and you'll be peeling off excess layers of clothing, it's also a good time to take stock of the extra pounds that may have accumulated over winter. Let's start cleaning up your act by spring-cleaning your snacks.
Whether at home, work, school, the gym, in your car or on a plane going to or from wherever life takes you, snacks could be trusty companions. It's important, though, to proceed with caution, because not all snacks are created equal. Some between-meal treats boost your energy and help carry you through until your next meal, while others zap vitality by filling instead of fueling, leaving you feeling hungrier and heavier.
My idea of an ideal snack contains a combo of nutrients: whole grain carbohydrates to provide thatahhhh feeling and to supply energizing fuel; powerful protein to keep you feeling alert and satisfied; and healthy fat to keep you from feeling hungry and to provide decadent flavor. Here's my list of healthy snack swaps that'll add some spring in your step:
1. Instead of a 100-calorie snack pack of cookies, try an individual pack of almonds. Just because something is portion-controlled doesn't make it a health food. I was thrilled when 100-calorie packs hit the shelves because I firmly believe that super-sized portions are the main reason why we're not a slimmer nation. These packs were rarely packed with nutritious foods and instead just included hard-to-pronounce ingredients. A pack of almonds, on the other hand, wears an ingredient list of one item: almonds. That's the way it should be—a simple, recognizable ingredient, naturally packed with protein, fiber, monounsaturated fat, vitamin E, calcium and lots of crunch. Basically, a clean label for clean eating.
2. Instead of a cereal bar, choose a well-rounded energy bar. It seems like there are more snack bars in the store today than shopping carts! Watch out for the ones that contain mostly sugar or fat and only have 1 gram of protein. Even if the calories are not exorbitant, they could be unbalanced and contain little nutrient value. Instead choose a bar that has around 5 grams of protein and at least 4 grams of fiber, and check the ingredient list to see if the main source of sugar comes from fruit—and not sugar in its many disguises (corn syrup, agave and cane sugar, for example. Bars are perfectly portable and certainly portion controlled.
3. Instead of plunging chips into a sour cream and onion dip, try scooping some fresh colorful veggies into guacamole. You'll regret the fluid retention you'll feel in your fingers and feet arising from the salty chips and dip, and in addition, you'll be diving into sour cream that has little, if any, nutritional value. Guacamole, on the other hand, is made with avocado, loaded with fat that's heart healthy and has nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds. Other components, like tomatoes, onion and garlic, also provide a multitude of benefits. (Check here for my guac recipe, including a secret ingredient.) For an even bigger burst of goodness, serve this with colorful veggies like carrots, zucchini, jicama and sugar snap peas. Even your kids will love it.
4. Instead of cheese crackers, swap DIY cheese and crackers. The numbers will tell the story: Some cheese crackers weigh in around 150 calories per serving, along with 7 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein, barely any fiber and only 2 percent of the calcium you need. If you instead pair some fiber-rich whole-grain crackers with an individually wrapped, portion-controlled cheese, you'll get half the fat, sodium and calories, twice the protein and 10 times the calcium.
5. Instead of light ice cream, swap a frozen container of Greek yogurt. Although "light" ice cream may have fewer calories than its regular counterparts, that doesn't make them all low in calories, sugar or fat, for that matter. Fat-free versions may leave you feeling unsatisfied, leading you to reach for larger portions and sugar-free types that may contain harmful trans fats. You're better off popping a container of Greek yogurt into the freezer an hour or so before you're looking to calm a snack attack. An average container of Greek yogurt has as much satisfying protein as 2 ounces of chicken, while accompanied by friendly bacteria (probiotics) for your gut, as well as a cocktail of calcium, vitamins and minerals. If you need an on-the-go snack, just grab a container and add some chopped nuts or a high fiber cereal, or toss your yogurt into a blender, and add your favorite fruit and a few ice cubes for a refreshing smoothie.
6. Instead of cookies and whole milk, swap cold cereal and skim milk. Cookies tend to supply more value to your mouth than to the rest of your body, and a cup of whole milk is like a cup of skim milk with 2 pats of butter melted within. Studies show that most of us are not getting enough fiber or calcium, and cereal and milk could be a great source of both. Choose wisely—select skim milk for 9 essential vitamins and minerals without saturated fat. The best cereals have whole grains listed as the first ingredient, at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Snacking hot-spots usually occur around 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., when your meals are out of your system and your blood sugar may be dropping. You might need a little pick-me-up to stabilize these levels and help you feel stronger and think more clearly. And although the most common time for snacking is at bedtime, that's when food is probably the last thing you need. Even if you were going to dream of mountain climbing ... you don't need a three-course meal before hitting the pillow! Too many of us over-snack at this sleepy time of day, leading to gastrointestinal problems, weight gain and a restless night. Nothing dreamy about that!
What are your favorite go-to snacks? Do share!
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.