Don’t fight the cravings. Catch up on the science of snacking and put together your healthy snack list. 04/21/2020
It’s difficult to avoid snacking in the best of times. But when you’re stuck inside and close to your pantry for days at a time, even the strong-willed can’t always resist the call of a quick nosh.
For many, snacking carries negative connotations. It says that we lack resolve, or can’t control our impulses. We feel our latest indulgence going straight to our thighs.
But that’s not always true. It is possible, and crucial, to snack in a healthy way. As with nutrition in general, it all comes down to what and how much you’re putting into your body. Enjoying a healthy snack can be an easy way to deliver the macro- and micronutrients your body needs to stay fit.
Salmon Jerky and Whole Grains
If you peruse the academic literature, you might end up confused about the health effects of snacking. Some studies have found that snackers are often healthier than people who don’t snack, while others have suggested snackers are less healthy. Unsurprisingly, the deciding factor is usually whether the snacks themselves are nutrient-rich (Hibi et al 2013).
Today, most snacking options are high in sugar and cheap, inflammatory fats such as soybean oil, but low in actual nutritional value. And people who eat such foods are more likely to gain weight and suffer related health problems ranging from diabetes to hypertension.
But if you swap out the potato chips for some organic trail mix, or trade your candy bar for lean salmon jerky, the results could be very different. For example, one study (Nicklas et al 2014) compared the snacking habits of nearly 19,000 people and found that those who snacked primarily on vegetables, whole grains and fruit were healthier overall. That makes sense, as those healthy snacks increased their daily total intake of several key vitamins and minerals.
A different study (Keast et al 2010), of adolescents this time, also found that young snackers had lower overall body weights. And another study (Sebastian et al 2008) highlighted the fact that people who snacked were more likely to consume recommended levels of vitamins and minerals.
Multiple studies also suggest that snacking often makes up a significant portion of our daily calories — more than 25 percent in some cases (Sebastian et al 2008). That’s all the more reason to make sure those calories count.
How to Choose Healthy Snacks
Perhaps the easiest way to make sure you’re snacking healthfully is to stock up on snacks that you know are good for you.
The simplest rule: maximize quality protein, which provides a feeling of fullness without promoting spikes in blood sugar (and subsequent dips, leading to hunger and more snacking).
Nuts offer plentiful protein and a quick, healthy way to squash hunger pangs. Pair them with some yogurt for an even more filling treat. Another protein-rich snack option is lean salmon jerky which is full of heart-healthy omega-3s.
Low-sugar fruits such as berries, vegetables and nuts are all great options for a healthy bite. And indulging in an occasional antioxidant-rich treat, like organic dark chocolate, can help satisfy your sweet tooth.
What’s more, providing healthy snacks for adults and kids is a great way to make sure you and your family are getting the recommended servings of nutrients and minerals. Snacks can also be a source of healthy diet components such as omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, which you might not be getting through regular meals.
Alternatively, fruits make for a sweet treat that also offers helpful polyphenols — shown to help vascular and brain health. Strawberries are rich in vitamin C, while wild organic blueberries have high levels of antioxidants. And fruits in general are good sources of fiber, calcium, folic acid and more. Blend your favorites into a smoothie or simply enjoy a la carte.
Or get a little fancy and whip up some garlic-bread bruschetta with toppings such as fresh tomatoes (or salsa for a kick), mozzarella, basil, avocados and a healthy protein like wild sardines.
Whatever you do, avoid processed foods in favor of natural options. Processed foods often contain fewer nutrients and more empty calories, and may lead you to eat more than you need to because you don’t feel as full (Hall et al 2019).
Nutrition and Mental Health
During times of stress and uncertainty, it's more important than ever to maintain a healthy diet. Studies have linked poor food choices with increased depression and anxiety (Jacka et al 2011). So what you put in your stomach could affect more than just your physical health.
Scientists still aren't sure why a healthy diet promotes mental health. Some research suggests that it could come down to our microbiomes, the roughly three-pound collection of helpful bacteria and microbes that lives in our guts and helps us digest food.
These bacteria have important, though still little-understood, connections to our brains via what scientists call the microbiota-gut-brain axis (Malan-Muller et al 2018). Some evidence even suggests that anxiety and depression are related to changes in the microbiome.
The foods we eat nourish our gut microbes. So, one potential explanation may be that when our diets don’t include balanced nutrition, our gut microbes suffer and their communities become unbalanced, causing problems throughout the body.
What can you do for your microbes? Feed them nutritious, natural foods. What’s good for you is good for your microbiome.
Ultimately, what you snack on matters just as much as what you eat for dinner. And keeping your snacks nutrient-rich is an easy and delicious way to keep your body running at full capacity and ready for any challenge.
Debra R Keast, Theresa A Nicklas, Carol E O’Neil, Snacking is associated with reduced risk of overweight and reduced abdominal obesity in adolescents: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2004, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 92, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 428–435, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.28421
Jacka, Felice N. PhD; Mykletun, Arnstein PhD; Berk, Michael PhD; Bjelland, Ingvar MD, PhD; Tell, Grethe S. PhD. The Association Between Habitual Diet Quality and the Common Mental Disorders in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Hordaland Health Study. Author Information. Psychosomatic Medicine: July-August 2011 - Volume 73 - Issue 6 - p 483-490
Hall, Kevin D. et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism, Volume 30, Issue 1, 67 - 77.e3. (2019) doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
Hibi et al. Nighttime snacking reduces whole body fat oxidation and increases LDL cholesterol in healthy young women. American Journal of Physiology. 15 January 2013. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00115.2012
Stefanie Malan-Muller, Mireia Valles-Colomer, Jeroen Raes, Christopher A. Lowry, Soraya Seedat, and Sian M.J. Hemmings. The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. 90-107. (2018). http://doi.org/10.1089/omi.2017.0077
Nicklas, T.A., O’Neil, C.E. & Fulgoni III, V.L. Snacking patterns, diet quality, and cardiovascular risk factors in adults. BMC Public Health 14, 388 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-14-388
Rhonda S. Sebastian M.A. Linda E. Cleveland M.S., R.D. Joseph D. Goldman M.A. Effect of snacking frequency on adolescents' dietary intakes and meeting national recommendations. The Journal of Adolescent Health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, ISSN: 1879-1972, Vol: 42, Issue: 5, Page: 503-11 (2008)