Manage a snack attack

Healthy snacking tips

—Michelle Cowee,

nutritionist and dietician

It’s midafternoon, and you’re starving. Between now and dinner, you have to give a presentation at a staff meeting, pick your kids up at day care, return 10 emails, and take the family dog to the vet. You know that nothing in the office vending machines can possibly be good for you, but your stomach’s growling, and your head is aching. You need food now and a hit of chocolate, Oreos or cheese popcorn is quick, easy and—let’s face it—very tempting.

Such high-fat snacking habits give one of our favorite pastimes, eating between meals, a bad rap. We’re snackaholics, and food manufacturers feed our addiction by introducing hundreds of new snack products to the market each year. We didn’t invent snacking; it’s been around since cavemen foraged for berries and seeds while they hunted. But as we’ve evolved, the whole concept of snacking has gotten out of control. Our snack food consumption has increased 200 percent in the past two decades, and even threatened to replace breakfast, lunch and/or dinner for many of us.

“Snacking can be a great thing,” said Michelle Cowee, a nutritionist and dietician in Carson City. “It’s important when you eat, to eat every four hours. Snacks can help you from overeating later.”

Even though high-calorie options such as chocolate and potato chips continue to be the most popular sellers in this multi-billion-a-year global industry, snacking doesn’t have to be your diet downfall.

“People who tend to eat smaller meals tend to need snacks,” said Christine Riley, dietician at the Children’s Heart Center, where she encourages healthy habits in children. Most women miss out on about 25 percent of the calcium and iron they need each day, and get only about half the suggested intake of fiber, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Over time, these nutrient deficits may contribute to health conditions such as anemia, osteoporosis, heart disease and colorectal cancer.

“It’s important to eat a snack that will keep you full. I usually recommend a combination of protein, with a fruit or vegetable,” said Riley. It’s really individualized. Snacking hugely depends on someone’s activity level.

Besides filling in these nutrient gaps, “snacks can also sustain your energy levels by stabilizing your blood sugar, the fuel required by your body’s cells,” says Christina Stark, R.D., a nutrition specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When blood sugar dips, which can happen if you don’t eat about every four hours, you may feel tired.

And most important, “Snacks can increase your energy and endurance levels during a workout,” says Debra Wein, R.D., co-founder of Sensible Nutrition Connection, a nutrition consulting firm in Boston, Mass. “If you eat a high-carbohydrate snack one hour before your workout, you’ll have more fuel available during exercise, and you won’t dip into your muscle glycogen reserves (carbohydrates stored in muscles) as quickly for energy.” The end result? A better workout, as well as more energy for activities later in the day. It’s also a good idea to eat a high-carb snack within a few hours after a long aerobic workout, one that lasts 60 minutes or more, to replace muscle glycogen stores. But after an intense strength-training session, try a protein snack such as lowfat cheese or yogurt, which will help build muscle.

Unlike meals, snacks are often casual and unplanned. “Because of that, people tend to focus more on meal calories than on snack calories,” says Stark. It’s a scary fact that you can easily consume 20 to 25 percent of your daily calories as snacks without even thinking about it. To keep snacks from becoming a fattening habit, try these strategies:

Hone in on hunger. Before you snack, ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” If the answer is yes—your stomach feels hollow, your head is achy—make sure you’re not confusing hunger with thirst.

“Drink an eight-ounce glass of water, then wait 10 to 15 minutes,” advises Audrey Cross, Ph.D., of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University in New York City. “If you’re still hungry, go ahead and have a healthy snack.” However, feel free to snack if you’re fueling a workout or replenishing after an hour-long or longer exercise bout.

Divide and conquer. To keep a snack from turning into a meal, avoid handfuls of anything. Rather than randomly dipping into the rice cakes at your desk or going through a box of crackers in front of the TV, give yourself a serving first, then put the rest away before you start to eat. When possible, buy snacks such as yogurt or raisins in single-serving containers, and divide bulk snacks like graham crackers and nuts and place them in individual sandwich bags. “It’s important to have a protein,” said Riley. “Crackers with cheese or an apple, string cheese with raw vegetables. Peanut butter with celery. A piece of low-fat meat, and include a fruit or vegetable with that.”

Stick to a budget. If you are weight conscious, keep calories between 100-150 calories. Nuts, whole grains, vegetables, fruit. Snacking can help you get the variety in every day.

Depending on their weight, active women can take in as many as 2,200 total daily calories with no more than 30 percent calories from fat. And yes, chasing after a toddler counts. To track fattening snack habits, try keeping a food diary for a week. Record everything you eat, including all snacks, portion sizes and calories.

Don’t practice denial. It’s important that you snack on what you’re craving, says Stark. If you’re dying for chocolate, have it—wisely. Either splurge on a tiny amount of good chocolate—such as one piece of Valrhona—or find a healthy substitute such as a glass of low-fat chocolate milk or hot chocolate. Dark chocolate is rich in nutrients called flavonoid antioxidants, which provides cardiovascular benefits. To get the most flavonoids, choose high-flavonoid dark chocolate and cocoa products rather than milk chocolate or Dutch processed (alkalized) items. Check the label to be sure. The first ingredient should be cacoa solids, cocoa mass, or chocolate liquor, not sugar.

Be prepared. The key to resisting salty, high-calorie, junk food during the day is having healthy alternatives on hand in your office.

“Plan ahead with your snacks,” said Cowee. “It takes planning so if you’re stuck at work, and there are vending machines or sweets.”

Stock a desk drawer with fig bars, crackers, instant oatmeal packets, nuts and low-fat microwave popcorn, and keep yogurt and low-fat cheese slices in the office refrigerator for midmorning and afternoon energy. For most of us, hunger strikes around 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Fill your gym bag with energy bars and fresh or dried fruit so you can fuel up for exercise before you leave work or on your way to the gym. At home, make sure you have whole grain cereal, skim milk, whole-grain English muffins, nuts, potatoes, salsa and fat-free frozen yogurt or sorbet in the kitchen for late-night or weekend cravings.