America is a nation of snackers (mainly with not so healthy snacks). Fully 97% of respondents to a 2019 survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) said they snack every week. One-third nibble something between meals daily, and 25% admitted to eating multiple snacks per day.
That’s a lot of snacks.
And the problem is, snacks can be sneaky.
If you want to eat for health or to lose weight, it’s relatively easy to keep track of the big three: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With increasingly accurate and user-friendly food tracking apps, you can get a very close approximation of your caloric intake, along with health-promoting nutrients and health-compromising substances such as sugar, salt, saturated fat, and artificial ingredients.
But many people ignore the calories they consume in snack form. Since snacks tend to be smaller portions than meals (although that depends on how many times you dip your hand back into the cracker box), it’s easier to think of them as “not counting,” like cake crumbs. You might not consider the impact of your snacking because you don’t even notice that you’re doing it. Lots of people consume snacks in a totally mindless way while doing other things like driving, working, or zoning out after a long, hard day. And since lots of snacks are calorically dense, those stealth additions to your diet can have a major impact.
In one study, 36 lean men took in 40% more calories just by snacking between meals. Doing a little back of the envelope math, if the average intake for men is 2000 calories per day, then the snacks added another 800 calories. At that rate of consumption, assuming no increase in physical activity, they’d gain about 10 pounds in three weeks.
Are Snacks Healthy?
Of course, we don’t eat calories; we eat food. And the kind of food we eat when we snack plays a big part in how many calories we take in and how they affect us. Because snack foods can vary widely in terms of caloric density and nutrition, the “wrong” snacks can cause weight gain and negatively affect our metabolism. So a better question than “Are snacks healthy?” is “Which snacks should I be choosing?”
As (supposedly) rational beings, most of us like to think that we eat because we’re hungry. As questionable as the assumption is, it really falls down in relation to snacks. In that same IFIC study, respondents admitted to snacking for reasons having nothing to do with hunger or thirst. People snack when they’re bored or experiencing some other unwanted emotion. People snack when they’re feeling tired and in need of a sugar or energy rush. And people snack just because something yummy is within hand’s reach, even if none of the above conditions hold.
Since we do a lot of snacking in order to change our mood or energy, it’s no wonder that we tend to gravitate towards hyper-palatable foods that excite our taste buds and trigger a cascade of the “Bingo!” neurotransmitter, dopamine. The more calories in a small package, the more our brain tells us that we’re doing great. And the best ways to increase tastebud pleasure and caloric density are through removing the fiber and water from plant-based foods and adding sugars, “natural flavors” (many of which are anything but natural), oil, salt, and caffeine. Which is exactly what’s been done to the vast majority of snacks you can buy in stores.
With the resurgent interest in health and healthy eating, you can find healthier alternatives in many stores like cookies and crackers made without trans fats and instead, with natural sugars and whole grains. You can also find low-quality snacks masquerading as healthy snacks. Lots of energy bars and chips fit this description. Ultimately, the best way to ensure healthy snacking is to prepare your own snacks at home.
Types of Snacks
Whether a particular food is a snack, an appetizer, a dessert, or an ingredient depends on the context. A bowl of mandarin oranges can, for example, garnish a salad, anchor a fruit platter, or travel in a purse or backpack for healthy snacking.
By that logic, of course, anything that you choose to snack on is, by definition, a snack. But what we think of as “snack foods” tend to be sweet, salty, or both. Candy bars, cookies, donuts, sugary carbonated beverages, and syrupy caffeinated beverages are common examples of the sweet variety. Crackers, pretzels, chips, jerky, olives, and roasted nuts represent Team Salty. And many snack foods like trail mix, chocolate-coated pretzels, caramel-filled pretzels, and honey-roasted nuts, combine both flavors into a bass-thumping rave right in your mouth.
One way to avoid the health and weight pitfalls of snacks is to not eat between meals. If you don’t have blood sugar control issues that require frequent eating, it’s not a bad idea to give your digestive system a rest for a few hours at a time during the day. Even if you’re not into intermittent fasting (which means going without calories for 12-16 hours at a stretch every day), you can still gain some of the benefits by taking 4-5 hour breaks between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. If your body must constantly prioritize digestion, then it has to push other useful functions like repair, immune response, detoxification, and reproduction onto the back burner.
But if you do need to eat between meals, whether for a specific medical condition or because you just feel and perform better when you do, it’s a good idea to choose healthy snacks whenever you can. Here are a few healthy snack idea suggestions:
Fruit provides a source of vitamins and minerals as well as dietary fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients. They are good for your arteries, and they can improve digestion and help fight cancer, obesity, and (despite their high sugar content) even type 2 diabetes. And middle-aged men take note: Fruit has even been found to promote healthy hair growth!
Since it can be very sweet, you might think that fruit would cause unstable blood sugar levels. But for most people, this isn’t a problem because the sugars in fruit come with fiber and other nutrients that slow down digestion and enable your body to regulate the influx of sugar effectively.
Fruit juice, however, is another story. By separating out and throwing away the fiber-rich pulp, we reduce the juice to essentially a refined product that may be linked with blood sugar instability and other problems. For most people, a little juice won’t do any major damage. Just keep in mind that eating whole fruit is where the real benefits lie. Next time you want a snack, grab an apple, pear, banana, orange, nectarine, pluot, mango, or peach.
Berries are one of my favorite superfoods and healthy snacks. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on a little island in Canada, and every summer I would go berry picking right outside our front door. I picked (and gorged on) wild blackberries, thimbleberries, and salal berries — and I loved them all.
When they’re in season, berries are fabulous fresh (if you can forage for them or afford them). Out of season, you can find them, often more affordably, frozen or even dried. Add them to salads, breakfast cereals, or smoothies — or simply eat them by the handful.
And berries aren’t just delicious; they also have a stunning ability to support your brain. In 2012, researchers from Harvard concluded that women who consumed at least one serving of blueberries or two servings of strawberries or blueberries per week showed slower rates of cognitive decline.
Another study published in Annals of Neurology analyzed data from 16,000 women with an average age of 74. Those with the highest levels of blueberry consumption delayed their cognitive aging by as much as two and a half years.
And they’re good for your heart and your blood sugar balance, too. A 20-year Harvard study of 93,600 women, published in the journal Circulation in 2013, found that those who ate the most berries were significantly less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes.
Berries of all types bring you critical minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols, and a host of other important phytonutrients that are good for your brain, heart, and overall health.
But what if you want something a bit more filling than fruit or berries? What if you want a snack that will give you a sustained lift of energy that can last for days or even weeks without refrigeration — and that you can take anywhere without getting squished? It might be a good time for some…
Many of us munch on walnuts, almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, pistachios, cashews, macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts, plus, an honorary nut we call peanut (even though peanuts are technically legumes). Sometimes we enjoy them with a sprinkling of salt; in a trail mix, nut loaf, or casserole; blended into nut milk; added to smoothies; prepared into nut cheezes (no, Google Docs, that’s not a misspelling — the “z” indicates non-dairy); or even ground and made into pie crusts.
You can make your own nut butters in a blender or food processor and get creative with complementary accents. Homemade peanut butter is delicious, but add a dash of cinnamon for a new spin on an old favorite. Or fold cacao powder into your next batch of homemade almond butter. Stuff half a teaspoon of that mix into a pitted date for a healthy, 3-ingredient “Snickers bar.”
And we’re really only beginning to appreciate the benefits that nuts offer. They’re rich in high-quality protein, fiber, minerals, tocopherols, phytosterols, vitamin E, vitamin B6, folate, and phenolic compounds. Epidemiologic studies have linked nut consumption with reduced rates of heart disease, gallstones, and obesity, as well as beneficial effects on hypertension and inflammation. Recent studies also indicate that nut consumption can help prevent type 2 diabetes.
The Nitty Gritty on Nuts
One study involving more than 9,000 North Americans found that those who ate nuts at least five times per week gained, on average, an extra two years of life expectancy. The nut eaters also experienced a 50% reduction in rates of heart disease risk.
That’s not all. A clinical study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research looked at what happened to men with erectile dysfunction who ate three to four handfuls of pistachios a day for three weeks. These men experienced a significant improvement in blood flow through their privates. The researchers concluded that three weeks of pistachios “resulted in a significant improvement in erectile function… without any side effects.”
Each year, Pfizer makes more than $1.6 billion selling Viagra. The company fears competition from rival drugs like Cialis and Levitra. Perhaps it should also be a bit worried about competition from pistachio farmers!
From sesame to sunflower to pumpkin, seeds are delicious and healthy snacks, and they offer many of the same health benefits as nuts. And some seeds, especially chia and flax seeds, offer an abundance of a bonus nutrient — alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the omega-3 fatty acids critical to your brain and cardiovascular health.
Cut up raw carrots, bell peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli florets and dip them in hummus or another plant-based spread for a filling snack loaded with nutrients. If you want to get fancy, add Belgian endive, jicama, and watermelon radishes to your crudité platter. Or fill celery with a dab of peanut or other nut butter. And don’t forget, you can always munch on veggies in the raw, too. If you’re looking for a mindless binging sensation, why not make it sticks of celery, or slices of broccoli, or even cabbage? Why not enjoy healthy snacks you’ll never need to feel guilty about!
Hey, why not? Aside from standing on their own as a meal or appetizer, soups make for healthy snack ideas too. They’re delicious, filling, comforting, and quick and easy to reheat if you’ve got a stovetop, microwave, or electric pressure cooker handy. Here’s an article we wrote recently of our favorite plant-based soup recipes!
Dips & Spreads
You can make tasty and satisfying spreads from nuts, beans, and even veggies like sweet potatoes and winter squash. Flavor them with your favorite herbs and spices and toss in condiments like sriracha or stone-ground mustard for limitless variety. You can spread them on tea sandwiches and use them as veggie dips.
Other Healthy Snack Ideas
Still looking for more healthy snack ideas? Here’s a list of other whole foods, plant-based snacks that you can enjoy as pick-me-ups during the day:
- Raw fruit and nut bars
- Non-dairy yogurt (you can even make your own!)
- Small salads
- Dried, unsulfured fruit
- Air-popped popcorn (seasoned with nutritional yeast, herbs, spices — maybe even a dash of lemon juice!)
- Ice Pops & Nice Cream
- Smoothies & shakes
- Raw cookies and balls
- Dark chocolate
- Chopped frozen fruit
5 Whole Food, Plant-Based Healthy Snacks for When You Want to Impress
There may be times when you feel the need to put a bit more effort into snacks you’ll be sharing, and the good news is you can have both style and substance with these delicious, nutrient-dense offerings from Food Revolution Network’s Plant-Powered & Thriving (PPT) and WHOLE Life Club (WLC).
Sometimes a tiny tweak to an old classic is just the thing. Adding roasted red peppers and green onions to this tried-and-true hummus recipe gives it a smoky, satisfying taste and a lovely color. Definitely more delicious than a red Instagram filter!
Quick word association game: I say “apples,” and you say… “nachos”? Well, maybe not until you try this ridiculously beautiful, creative, and delicious dessert-snack hybrid. The apple slices form the base and are smothered (or lightly drizzled, your choice) in healthy caramel sauce and are topped with pretty much anything you like: popcorn, shredded coconut, non-dairy chocolate chips, nuts, nut butter, and so on.
These healthy sweet treats are like convenient, bite-sized lumps of trail mix goodness. The base consists of rolled oats, peanut butter, and maple syrup. The add-ins are up to you and your imagination: sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds; dried and fresh fruits; and other yummies like carob or cacao powder and shredded coconut flakes.
Get all the zesty spice found in a cup of chai in these raw, whole food bars. Both crunchy and chewy in texture, their healthfulness comes from the combination of nuts, spices, and fruit.
Take some long, thin sweet potatoes. Cut ‘em into wedges. Coat ‘em with just enough olive oil to make spices stick to ‘em. Then add those spices: paprika, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and more. Bake ‘em until you’ve got dirty fries that can’t be beat.
The Key To Smarter Snacking
Many people are healthiest eating three times per day — and foregoing snacks altogether, but not everyone. And if the urge for snacking strikes, you’re better off being prepared, with some tasty and nutritious go-to options, than scarfing down a bag of potato chips or a package of cookies. Plus, if you have kids, family, or friends who like to snack, you might want a positive alternative to share with them, too. So find the snack pattern and plan that works for you, and enjoy!
Tell us in the comments:
- Do you eat snacks? Why or why not?
- Do you have any snacking indulgences you’d like to stop?
- Do you have any favorite, go-to healthy snack ideas?
Feature image: iStock.com/Premyuda Yospim