Are little bites throughout the day good or bad for your waistline? Nutrition gurus just can't make up their minds. On the one hand, even healthy snacks could be a major contributor to rising levels of obesity (we eat twice as many a day as we did 30 years ago). But on the other, nutritious nibbles are one of the top ways to stave off hunger and help you make better food choices all day. Who knew that baby carrots could be so darn controversial? To cut through the confusion, we ID six strategies of smart snackers so you can have your midday munchies and eat them, too.
They Plan Snacks
Although you wouldn't sit down to an extra lunch or dinner, an extra snack seems harmless. Beware: A day's worth of noshes can add up to a meal's worth of calories. If you have an apple with two tablespoons of nut butter midmorning, scarf down a handful of pretzels after lunch, grab a cup of low-fat yogurt to power through a long afternoon, and munch on a bowl of popcorn at 9:00 p.m., you've eaten an extra 600 calories (hello, that's dinner!). Two snacks -- one midmorning and one midafternoon -- are probably all you need, says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and a coauthor of The "I" Diet.
So instead of grazing willy-nilly, map out your snacks in advance. "Take your total daily calories and divide them into three equal-calorie meals and one or two 200-calorie snacks," says Julie Upton, RD, a coauthor of The Real Skinny. For a 2,000-calorie diet -- what the typical active woman needs -- that's 533 calories each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus two 200-calorie extras. (If you eat lightly in the a.m., steal 150 calories from breakfast and tack them onto supper, so you have 383 for breakfast, 533 for lunch, and 683 for dinner.)
They Don't Eat Like Clockwork
There's a fine line between planning healthy snacks and eating on autopilot. We've all heard that you should eat every two or three hours to keep your metabolism revved and make sure you never feel desperate for food. But if you're not hungry, you're taking in unnecessary calories and screwing up your system's satiety signals. "If you graze all day, you never really experience the right degree of hunger," Upton says. "Instead of eating just because it's time, watch for your body's hunger cues: a preoccupation with food, an empty sensation in your stomach, lightheadedness, or extreme tiredness."
Exposure to round-the-clock snack foods can also activate the reward center in your brain, according to research from the University of Exeter in England. The result? You end up wanting to eat more, even though your physical appetite is satisfied. Next time you think you're hungry between meals, try the apple test. If you're really hungry, a Granny Smith will sound good, and you should eat something. If a candy bar is the only thing that sounds appealing, you're probably just bored or tired. Get a pick-me-up from a walk around the block or a glass of H2O. "When my energy is low and I'm craving junk but not hungry, I reach for seltzer. It rehydrates me, so I'm more energized, plus the bubbles are filling," says Georgie Stergakos, 25, a FITNESS reader in New York City.
They Give In to Cravings
Sometimes a cookie is the only thing that will truly satisfy, and that's okay. "Cravings are nothing to be ashamed of," says Keri Glassman, RD, the author of The New You (and Improved!) Diet. "We all have them, and trying to eat around them only causes more damage. Say you're jonesing for chips. Instead of eating one serving and moving on, you have celery, then an apple, then a handful of pretzels, then -- because you're still not satisfied -- the whole bag of chips." While it might be hard to fathom stopping at just one cookie when you've got a whole box in the pantry, keep this in mind: In a recent Cornell University study, eating less than a half ounce of chocolate or potato chips quelled snackers' cravings just as effectively as eating a portion five or 10 times larger.
So give in to your sweet -- or salty -- tooth, but eat only half of what you normally would. Savor your snack, then check in with yourself. Still want more? Consider that second helping in terms of exercise. "Estimate how long it would take you to burn off the food. For every 100 calories, a 150-pound woman would have to jog for almost 10 minutes," Glassman says. Or try this tip from Carolina Caro, a 39-year-old life coach in Los Angeles: "When I get a chocolate craving, I melt a tablespoon of chocolate chips in the microwave and dip some fruit into it. Instant portion control!"
They Don't Sweat on an Empty Stomach
Ever tried hitting the gym when you're hungry? Ten minutes into your workout, you're weak, cranky, and totally phoning it in. It's smart to snack before you sweat if it's been more than two hours since your last meal. Don't go crazy, though; a 200-calorie nosh is enough to pick you up without undermining all the calorie burning you're about to do. To get the most energy bang for your buck, opt for something that's about 60 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 10 percent fat, Upton says. (More fat than that can be hard to digest by the time you exercise.) Two good choices: Stir a chopped medium banana into a half cup of low-fat cottage cheese or low-fat plain Greek yogurt, or fill a small whole wheat pita with two ounces of sliced turkey and lettuce, tomato, and mustard.
They Choose the Real Deal
The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to contain a lot of sugar and salt, which won't give you lasting energy. "Munch on whole foods like fruits, veggies, and nuts. They've got more protein, fiber, and healthy fats and keep you full longer," Glassman says. Research backs this up: When snackers in a Cornell University study ate a combo of vegetables and cheese, they needed fewer calories to feel full than when they ate potato chips.
To fortify yourself against the call of the office vending machine, avoid having one-dollar bills in your wallet while you're at work, suggests Shelby Issersohn, 21, a FITNESS reader in Voorhees, New Jersey. Keep a stash of good-for-you snacks made from whole foods, like all-natural trail mix or shelf-stable single-serving pouches of tuna with whole-grain crackers, in your desk or bag. If you're starving and packaged fare is the only option, go for the peanuts; they're high in filling protein.
They Know Where to Snack
That means yes to eating in the kitchen or the break room at work -- and heck, no to snacking in the car, in front of the TV, or at your desk. "If you get into the habit of eating somewhere other than the table, you'll start to associate food with that place and always want to eat there," says Lisa Young, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Portion Teller Plan. Although inhaling lunch while you work might score points with your boss, it won't help you in the diet department. People who ate while on their computers not only reported feeling less full than those who focused on their food but also ended up consuming almost twice as many cookies later, a recent study from the University of Bristol in England found.
Eating while watching TV could also make you more likely to pick junky foods rather than healthy ones, according to research from the University of Waterloo in Canada. "Have a bowl of high-fiber cereal as dessert right after dinner. It makes you full, so you can resist the desire to snack in front of the tube later," Roberts says. Still have the urge to munch? Chew gum at night. "After about 14 days, the urge to snack while watching TV will fade," she says.
Related: How to Avoid Life's Big Fat Traps
Make Over Your Munchies
Standard healthy snacks starting to feel like a snoozefest? Take five typical bites from average to awesome with these ideas, each around 200 calories.
Old standby: Carrot sticks with ranch dressing
New favorite: Spicy citrus sticks and avocado
• Toss 1 cup jicama matchsticks in a bowl with the juice of 1/2 lime, 1/4 teaspoon chili powder, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Enjoy with 1/2 avocado.
Old standby: Microwave popcorn
New favorite: Pumpkin-spice popcorn
• Toss 4 cups air-popped popcorn with 2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds; sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon.
Old standby: Apples with peanut butter
New favorite: Baked pear with honey
• Halve a small pear and bake at 375° for 30 minutes. Top with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts and 1 teaspoon honey. Dust with ground ginger.
Old standby: Low-fat yogurt with fruit
New favorite: Cheesy apple slices
• Mix 1 ounce goat cheese with 1 chopped date and a splash of vanilla. Spread on a sliced small apple.
Old standby: Whole wheat crackers
New favorite: Kale chips
• Drizzle 1 bunch chopped kale with 2 teaspoons olive oil and salt to taste. Bake at 300° for 15 to 20 minutes, or until crisp.