If you’re looking to improve your snacking habits, these 14 healthy snack ideas can help you to boost your energy levels, and even help with weight loss.
Snacks can be an important source of nutrition, energy, and calorie intake throughout the day. However, when most of us reach for a snack, it tends to be an unhealthy option. According to research by a 2021 Global Consumer Survey, Americans’ top three go-to snacks are cookies, chips, and ice cream.
Snacks can be an important part of a healthy diet. But so much depends on what you reach for at that moment when your stomach growls with hunger, or you experience a dip in your energy levels. Opting for a healthy snack, like one of the best protein bars, as opposed to fast food, candy, or a salty snack, can affect your weight, and your overall health.
This article takes a closer look at whether snacks can be a healthy option between meals, whether morning or evening snacks are better, and what healthy options you can build into your overall eating patterns to get the most from your snacks. Plus, we speak to a registered nutritionist to get the lowdown on what and when to eat.
Should you snack between meals?
The 2020 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council revealed about a quarter of Americans snack multiple times a day, and nearly 40% of us even occasionally replace meals with a snack.
New statistics gathered during the coronavirus pandemic found that working from home accelerated snack consumption even further. However, this trend was already on the rise among Americans, who added 25 extra snacks a year per capita in the five years leading up to the pandemic, according to The NPD Group’s Eating Patterns in America.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 - 2025, states that “planning meals and snacks in advance with food groups and nutrient-dense foods and beverages in mind can support healthy eating at home and improve dietary patterns of individuals and families”. So snacking can be as important as your main meals in terms of making healthier choices.
Snacking between meals can give you a much-needed energy boost. It can also help to control your blood glucose levels, and curb your appetite to avoid overeating during main meals. They can also be a source of extra nutrients or calories if you find it hard to schedule, or finish, a main meal.
Registered nutritionist for ProYouth Nutrition, Rachel Akuffo agrees. “Small snacking that consists of healthy choices may be helpful to keep your energy levels up and could prevent you from becoming overly hungry and overeating at your next meal,” she says.
But she adds a word of warning: “Ultimately it's about calories consumed versus calories expended. Whether snacking is beneficial or not depends on why you are snacking, the snack choices, and how much.”
As we all know, poor snacking choices, or too many snacks, can reduce how hungry we feel at mealtimes, leading us to skip out on essential nutrition, changing our eating behaviors for the worse, and increasing our urge to eat salty, sugary, or fatty foods that are detrimental to our health.
Bad habits can stick too, as Akuffo points out: “If you are simply responding to snacking habits, brain simulation of temptation by chocolates and other unhealthy snacks, then snacking can lead to weight gain and other issues.”
Harvard School of Public Health says that the ideal snack should be “enough to satisfy, but not so much that it interferes with your appetite for a meal or adds too many calories”. They suggest aiming for a snack that has around 150-200 calories. However, if you’re trying to lose weight, the British Heart Foundation suggests cutting this to around 100 calories.
When is the best time to snack?
The worst time to snack
A 2019 study into snack times in Seattle workplaces looked at the relationship between obesity and the timing of snacks. Researchers found that evening snacks were more associated with being overweight than any other snack time.
The researchers also found that mid-morning snacks tended to be healthier than at any other time, and typically involved more fruit and vegetable consumption. Evening snacks were more likely to be French fries, fast food, and soft drinks. People who snacked in the evening were also more likely to be distracted during eating, which can result in consuming more food.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that eating food during the evening and night was more likely to result in a higher body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI). The upshot? The later you snack, the more likely you are to make unhealthy choices, and eat too much.
The best time to snack
So when is the best time to snack? This seems to be harder to pin down. Much of it depends on what you reach for, as opposed to when you eat your snack. However, a 2020 study into the effects of having a low-sugar mid-afternoon snack of hummus found that it reduced subsequent snacking on sweet and sugary foods later in the evening by 20%.
Eating more food earlier in the day, rather than at night, is also good for you, say researchers. A 2019 study into the relationship between circadian rhythms and eating, found that taking in more energy early in the day reduced inflammation, improved sleep and increased the body’s ability to cope with stress. It also improved gut health.
Given that we know late night eating can increase obesity, it appears that keeping your snack times to morning or afternoon is better for you, both in terms of weight loss, and overall health.
However, it’s not always a choice. Working patterns and busy days can disrupt our schedules from time to time, so if you find you have to have a snack at night, don’t sweat it too much. As Akuffo says, “Whilst it’s good to give your body a break at night times, if your body hasn’t had adequate calories, or you are a shift worker, then your snacking pattern needs to be altered.”
14 healthy snack ideas
- A sliced apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter: Apples are a great source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium, while peanut butter is packed with protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.
- String cheese with whole grain crackers: String cheese contains calcium, while the wholegrain crackers will provide fiber to fill you up.
- Crunchy veg crudités such as peppers, carrots and celery, topped with a light dressing of zero-fat Greek yogurt, parsley, mint and a squeeze of lemon: Add a scattering of pine nuts for extra protein.
- Trail mix with chopped dates or fresh fruit: Makes a satisfying snack with plenty of protein and heart-healthy fats.
- Protein bar: A protein bar can help to curb appetite. Choose one packed with natural, unprocessed sources of protein, such as nuts and yogurt.
- Air popped popcorn (2 cups): Popcorn is packed with fiber, helping to fill you up without the calories. Be sure to choose plain popcorn rather than a flavored brand.
- One cup of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt and ½ cup of fruit, such as blueberries, strawberries or apricots: Greek yogurt is an excellent source of calcium and protein, while fruit can provide a boat to your daily vitamin and fiber intake.
- Half a cup of edamame beans: These are high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, such as iron, magnesium, folate and vitamin K.
- Two tablespoons of cottage cheese and six cherry tomatoes on a rice or oatcake: This low-calorie cheese is high in protein and nutrients, and is often used in weight loss plans. The cherry tomatoes are packed with antioxidants, and the oat or rice cakes provide fiber.
- One sliced banana on a slice of wholemeal toast: Bananas are a filling source of fiber, and antioxidants, while wholemeal bread contains iron, folate, potassium, and magnesium.
- A sliced red pepper and three tablespoons of low-fat hummus: Peppers are loaded with antioxidants and low-fat hummus is rich in calcium, iron, and magnesium.
- A quarter of sliced avocado on a wholegrain crispbread: Avocado is packed with healthy fats and nutrients, such as vitamin K and folate. The crispbread adds fiber, which will help you to feel fuller for longer.
- A boiled egg: Eggs are an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and vitamins, plus they’re low in calories.
- A small handful of mixed nuts, such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews and pistachios: Eating nuts in moderation can help you lose weight, and they are a rich source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
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Joanne Lewsley is a UK-based freelance writer and editor, covering health and lifestyle news and features. She mainly creates evidence-based health and parenting content and has worked with a number of global sites, including BabyCentre UK, Medical News Today, Fit & Well, Top Ten Reviews, and Yahoo!