Every weekday morning, I pack not only a lunch to bring to work, but snacks too. Maybe it's the registered dietitian part of me, but I don't like to be caught hungry with no healthy options around. A good-for-you snack can be an important part of a healthful diet. Research suggests that nutritious snacks can stave off hunger by stabilizing blood sugar--which may help you eat more sensibly at mealtimes.
Recipes to Try: 30 Healthy Snacks for 100 Calories or Less
So what should you snack on? Fruits and vegetables are a great place to start. Most people don't get enough fruits and vegetables in their diet, so chomping on them during snacktime is a good way to help you meet your daily quota. But if you have some specific health goals--such as slimming down or beating that afternoon energy slump--here are some snacks that can help you meet them:
WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT
Chile-spiced nuts: In one Harvard study, women who ate nuts two or more times a week gained less weight than women who rarely noshed on them. Although nuts are high in calories, researchers think that the combination of protein, fiber and healthy fats help keep you feeling full. And going for nuts with a little zing may even help boost your metabolism. Studies suggest that capsaicin, an antioxidant in chile peppers (and also what makes them hot), increases the body's metabolic rate--slightly--and may stimulate brain chemicals in a way that helps you feel satisfied. One extra tip: eat those nuts slowly! One study found that people who chewed almonds thoroughly (up to 40 chews) felt full longer than those who chewed the same amount of nuts fewer times.
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Popcorn: Air-popped popcorn (without butter) is downright virtuous, while still being satisfying. That's because popcorn is technically a whole grain and, as such, delivers 4 grams of fiber and just under 100 calories for 3 cups. Fiber, which helps you to feel full on fewer calories, can help jump-start your weight loss. In one two-year study in the Journal of Nutrition, boosting fiber by 8 grams for every 1,000 calories resulted in losing about 4 1/2 pounds.
FOR GENERAL HEALTH
Smoothie: Snacks are a good place to fill in nutritional gaps from the rest of our day. Two nutrients most Americans fall short on are fiber and calcium. Instead of buying a smoothie (store-bought smoothies can pack a ton of calories--in part because they often come in large sizes and may also add extra sugar), try a homemade smoothie. Use skim or low-fat yogurt and/or milk for the calcium and fruit for the fiber; berries are particularly high in fiber and lowish in calories. (Supercharge your smoothie with these 6 ingredients for super-healthy smoothies.)
Whole-grain cereal-based snack mix: A snack mix that delivers whole grains in the form of whole-grain cereal and protein via nuts provides staying power. You can also sweeten it up with a tablespoon or two of raisins or (my favorite) dried cherries.
Dark chocolate: I love it when research gives me more reasons to eat my favorite foods. Researchers have found that eating moderate amounts of flavanol-rich dark chocolate has a blood-thinning effect, which can benefit your heart. Some research also suggests cocoa may help lower blood pressure. Just keep in mind that chocolate is pretty high in calories, so watch your portions.
Yogurt: Eating yogurt may protect against gum disease. And people with gum disease--which affects up to 50 percent of American adults--are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems. Researchers from Japan analyzed dietary intakes from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest levels of dairy--specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks--had the healthiest gums. They credit probiotics (a.k.a. "good bacteria") as one possible champion of gum health, possibly countering the growth of the "unfriendly" bacteria in the mouth.
WHEN YOU NEED MORE ENERGY
Edamame: Trying to beat an afternoon energy slump? Eat some protein, say researchers. A study published in the November 2011 issue of Neuron found that while glucose (sugar) blocks certain neurons that help you feel awake, the amino acids in protein prevent that from happening. So, if you eat some carbs at lunch, a protein-rich afternoon snack may keep you from feeling sleepy. And since protein helps keep you feeling full longer, that snack might tide you over better than a sugary one and keep you from snacking too much throughout the afternoon. Not a fan of edamame (which deliver 8 grams of protein per ½ cup)? Hard-boiled eggs (6 grams each) and nuts (roughly 4 grams per ¼ cup) are also protein-rich options.
TO GET A BETTER NIGHT'S SLEEP
A slice of whole-grain toast with a smear of peanut butter: If a good night's sleep is what you crave, there may be a food combination to help. Specialists recommend a pre-slumber snack that's rich in carbohydrates and contains a bit of protein; this combination is said to increase the tryptophan levels in the brain, causing you to sleep more soundly. Toast and peanut butter deliver the magic combo.
What are your favorite snacks?
By Kerri-Ann Jennings
Kerri-Ann Jennings, a registered dietitian, is the associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, where she wields her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, bake and paint.
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