A lot of people consider snacking a “throwaway” part of their nutritional day, but smart snacking can improve or detract from your general health.
So say two savvy registered dietitians, Erica Midgley and Hope Oglesby, both of whom work for UCHealth at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.
The nutritional team gave a presentation on healthy snacking recently for the Denver Broncos Women Workout Series. But what they said applies to both men and women who are active adults, they said, adding that nutrition needs will vary somewhat depending on gender, age, body composition and fitness level.
Snacking can be an important part of your daily nutrition, Oglesby said. “It has the potential to either provide good benefit to our diet, or to sabotage our intended goals.
Some of the benefits of healthy snacking include “providing us with quick energy we might need, controlling hunger, and providing additional nutrients—calories, protein, fiber and other vitamins and minerals we might miss at other times of the day. It also can promote weight loss or build muscle,” Midgley added.
And while snacking can be good, it also can be bad.
“The downside is that it can also provide the opportunity to take in excess calories or eat foods that don’t contribute to good nutrition,” Oglesby said.
Some foods are ideally suited to specific purposes and when choosing a snack, it is important to focus on at least two food groups with the emphasis being on protein, paired with either a complex carbohydrate or healthy fat.
Snacks good for quick energy include things high in protein like hummus with veggies or whole grains, Greek yogurt with fruit or oats, half a tuna or deli meat sandwich on whole-grain bread, dried fruit and nuts, or string cheese with some whole-grain crackers, Oglesby said.
Spacing out intake of protein throughout the day has been shown to be effective in building and maintaining muscle mass, which can in turn promote weight loss, Ogelsby said.
Midgley named such things as eggs, Greek yogurt, hummus, nut butters and lean meats or fish in that category.
“If it builds muscle, it is probably good for weight loss, too,” she said. “And more fiber is good, like whole-grain crackers with peanut butter.”
They note that snacks are also a great opportunity to increase our intake of fiber which is found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber helps to promote GI health as well as control hunger by providing satisfaction and a feeling of fullness with taking in less.
These same foods also are good for controlling hunger, they said. Combining protein with whole grains help control blood sugar as well.
Another thing to remember is to stay hydrated, especially when exercising.
“Sometimes you think you feel hungry but you’re really thirsty,” Oglesby said.
The snacks that provide the most nutritional punch are “what we consider to be whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, as opposed to heavily processed food,” Oglesby said “An apple is better than apple juice, for example, because it contains the fiber with less sugar. The more natural the state, the better.”
Vary your snack choices, Midgley said. “Variety really is the spice of life, so eat different things. Protein is protein, even if one has a slightly different composition than another. Eating a diversity of foods will ensure a more complete provision of nutrients.”
Poor snack choices can compromise our health goals, they warned.
“If we are not careful, we can be taking in a large amount of excess calories as we snack, including high amounts of added sugar or fat, getting full on foods that are highly processed and nutritionally empty, not providing us with the benefits of a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet,” Oglesby said.
Snacking plays another role in our diets, too.
“The potential for skipping snacks and moving into your next meal really hungry might make you eat emotionally or just with what’s convenient,” Midgley said. “Going into a meal really hungry can make you overeat and choose the foods that are more instantly gratifying, which can pose a long-term problem.”
There are certain foods nutritionally geared to help us through an exercise regimen, they said.
Before exercise, you may or may not need a snack.
“Typically, if you have eaten a well-rounded meal within a couple of hours before your workout, you’re probably well-nourished for that workout. If not, maybe eat a small piece of fruit or some whole-grain crackers, focusing on something light and an easily digestible carbohydrate, just to keep your energy up and preserve muscle mass while working out,” Midgley said.
Most people don’t need to snack during exercise, they agreed, especially if it’s less than 60-90 minutes. The main concern then is staying hydrated, they added.
“But if you’re doing some sort of endurance training, longer than 60-90 minutes, it’s a good idea to consume some carbs to extend your performance,” Midgley said. A sports drink can do this, and help replace electrolytes if you’re sweating heavily. If that doesn’t appeal, stick with water and maybe some dried fruit or sports chews, both things easy to carry if you’re running or biking.
After exercise – during recovery – consider a snack with protein and some carbs, they said. It is recommended to take in a combination of protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes of completing your workout. This could be in the form of a snack such as Greek yogurt with fruit or an egg on an English muffin, or even a nutritionally complete meal such as baked salmon with rice and spinach salad or a baked potato topped with turkey chili.
A key to consuming healthful snacks is planning, they said.
“Some people don’t plan their snacks – or even their meals – for the day, and it can result in less than optimal food choices and make choices more impulsive, like being tempted to snack on cookies, chips or doughnuts rather than something good for you,” Midgley said. “Have good stuff available at hand, in your gym bag or car or at the office, wherever you go after your workout.”
That’s not to say you can never have a Snickers bar.
“There is certainly room to enjoy treats in moderation while still being mindful of what you are putting into your body,” Oglelsby said. “You always have the option to make the better choice, of course, but you also have to allow yourself to enjoy occasional treats.”
When choosing healthful snacks, there are several things to keep in mind, they said.
“Reading labels is important,” Midgley said. “Know the number of servings in a snack, for example. It may say the snack is 200 calories per serving– but there may be multiple servings in one package.”
They also suggested looking at the sugar content and finding snacks high in fiber. Be especially careful of foods marketed as “sports” bars or other snack items. They are often highly processed, high in sugar and may be lacking in essential nutrients.”
“Really, whole foods treat our body the best,” Oglesby said.
“Eating the right snack is important,” Midgley added. “When watching your nutrition, it can tip the balance.”