The Art of Power Snacking

Try some snacks that pack a nutritional wallop for a small caloric price

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

One of the biggest myths about snacking is that it's a bad thing. The truth is that it's not snacking itself that's bad for us. It's all the junk food people like to snack on that gives snacking a bad name: chips, candy bars, french fries, soda, and so on.

In fact, if you eat until you are comfortable (not "full") at lunch, chances are you'll need a mid-afternoon snack to tide you over until dinner with plenty of energy. The secret is to snack only when you need to and to select smarter snacks.

7 Tips for Smart Snacking

1. Give healthy snacks a chance.

If you try some of the healthier snack alternatives out there, you may well find that you enjoy them. This appears to be true even of college students. One college dining hall discovered that when it offered healthy snacks along with traditional ones, a significant portion of the student population actually opted for health. The dining hall, which regularly sold snack bags containing sugar-laden soda, cookies, and candy, began also offering "smart snack bags," containing baked chips, low-fat cookies, fruit cups, sunflower seeds, and water. And for every two students who bought the traditional, sugar-soaked snack bag, there was one who bought the "smart" snack alternative.

If you're one of the many people whose idea of a good snack is something crunchy and salty, know that you can have your crunch and eat smart, too. Here are a few possibilities for more healthful crunchy snack foods:

  • Low Fat Kettle Crisps (110 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 2 grams fiber per 1 ounce.)
  • Baked Tostitos (110 calories, 1 gram fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 2 grams fiber per 1 ounce.)
  • Reduced Fat Triscuits (120 calories, 3 grams fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 3 grams fiber per 1 ounce)
  • Padrinos Reduced Fat Tortilla Chips (130 calories, 4 grams fat, 0.5 grams saturated fat, and 1 gram fiber per ounce.)

2. Avoid trans fats.

You've no doubt heard of the trouble with trans fats by now (they raise "bad" cholesterol and lower "good" cholesterol). Well, guess which type of food they tend to lurk in? Snack foods - things like crackers, snack cakes and pies, frozen fried microwave snacks, and cookies. Anything with "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" listed among the top three ingredients on the label is suspect. Some manufacturers have done a good job of reformulating products to remove trans fats, but keep an eye out anyway.

3. Be a label detective.

Don't decide whether to buy a food based on the advertising banners on the front of the package. Check out the Nutrition Information label on the back, too. This will tell you what the company calls a portion of that food. Prepare to be amazed: What they say is a serving and what you actually eat may be completely different. The Nutrition Information label lists the calories; grams of fat, saturated fat and trans fat; and, sometimes, grams of sugar. So if the label says a serving is 1 ounce of chips and you eat 2 or 3 ounces, double or triple the nutrition information numbers.

4. Be careful with energy bars.

There are all kinds of "energy" or "power" bars being marketed under the guise of convenience and good nutrition. The truth is, these carry-anywhere bars can come in handy. But a review of many different energy bar labels reveals that choosing a bar is a matter of "picking your poison." That is, deciding what means most to you - taste, fat, fiber, protein, sugars? Generally, if bars are "low in carbs" they're also low in fiber and/or higher in fat. (Some even have quite a bit of saturated fat.) And if a bar tastes pretty good, it probably has at least 12 grams of sugars per serving.

When picking one, look for at least 3 grams of fiber (preferably 5 grams), at least 5 grams of protein (preferably 10 grams), lower amounts of fat with no saturated fat, and fewer than 20 grams of sugar.

5. Don't snack if you aren't really hungry.

Some French researchers studied the effect of two types of snacks (one high in carbohydrate and one high in protein), given a few hours after lunch, on eight lean young men. They concluded that when people who aren't hungry eat a snack -- whether it's high in carbs or protein -- they do not tend to reduce the number of calories they eat at dinner. The researchers believe this is evidence that snacking can play a role in obesity.