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The simple formula that makes snack time healthier (plus 21 snack ideas!)

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As you continue your health journey, you may be wondering, should I snack? Are snacks good or bad? When it comes to healthy eating, some people avoid snacks, while others prefer to break their meals up into smaller portions and graze throughout the day. The decision to snack is different for everyone.

So... is it ok to snack between meals?

Eating well-balanced meals that emphasize lean proteins, vegetables, and whole foods can give your body a lot of benefits besides a full tummy. Research shows that spacing out your meals with four to five hours in between gives your body a rest and allows it to burn fat instead of storing it. Fewer eating events may also reduce inflammation and help blood sugar balance out.

But, if your schedule won’t allow you to have regular meals every four or five hours—maybe you’ve got a long commute or you work late, a healthy snack or mini-meal can be just the thing to satisfy your appetite and give your body a needed boost.

The benefits of healthy snacks

Just as you build your meals so they’re giving your body the nutrients they need and satisfying your appetite, you can build snacks that are both tasty and beneficial. Here’s what a good snack can do:

  • Sustain your energy and blood sugar levels.  The physical hunger we experience daily is triggered by your brain, blood sugar level, and hormones. Your body is letting you know what it needs, and eating will help you stay energized and keep your blood sugar level. If your meals are spaced out five hours or longer, it’s ok to reach for a snack that fuels your body with nutritious food. 

  • Increase your nutrient intake. U.S. government dietary surveys show Americans don’t get enough fiber, vitamin D, or calcium. A healthy snack can help you change that.

  • Prevent overeating. A well-timed snack can help you manage your appetite so you’re not ravenously hungry by your next mealtime. Otherwise, once you finally sit down to a meal, you might stuff yourself to the point of discomfort before you even realize it. It’s not just the extra calories from a snack that will help tide you over, but also nutrients like protein, fiber, and healthy fat, which move more slowly through your digestive system and help you feel satisfied longer.

  • Recover from movement. A good time for a snack is right when you leave the gym, trail, or court. Vigorous sessions of movement deplete your muscle’s stores of glycogen, the stored glucose your body uses for energy. You can replenish your body with a snack that includes protein, fiber, and healthy fats. (We’ve got snack ideas below!) 

The formula for healthy snacks: protein + fat + fiber

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage healthy snacks such as raw veggies, fruit, nuts, and plain yogurt. These options are nutrient-dense and high in protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Now that you know snacks can be a part of healthy eating, here’s how to make a snack that gives you the boost you need in one simple formula: Protein + fat + fiber. That formula gives you a lot of options (keep reading for ideas), but let’s look at each of those elements, what they do for your body, and how they reach specific snacking goals. 

Protein Protein supports a healthy metabolism and helps build and maintain muscle tissue, which is important as we age. It’s a good idea to spread your daily protein across meals and snacks. Also, more protein doesn’t necessarily mean more meat—eggs, beans, lentils, quinoa, cheese, and Greek-style yogurt are also examples of good sources of protein. 

When it comes to snacks that curb your appetite, protein’s important. Research shows protein reduces levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” helps you stay full, and helps muscles recover after movement.

Fats Healthy fats—polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—help your body in multiple ways. They help your body use vitamins A, D, E, and K, and also support cell growth and reduce inflammation.

Another reason you’ll want to include a little healthy fat in your snacks: Fat slows down your digestion and helps food stay in your stomach longer. There are lots of tasty ways to enjoy healthy fats—try nuts like macadamia, almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, all of which contain Omega-3 fatty acids. Other healthy fats include nut butter, seeds, olives, tuna, sardines, smoked trout, or cured salmon, and salad dressings and dips made with olive oil, avocado oil, other nut oils, or tahini.

Fiber & carbs  To understand the how and why of snacking on fiber-rich foods, you’ll need to understand carbs—your body’s favorite source of energy. If you need an energy boost to get past a mid-afternoon slump, you’ll want some carbs. There are two types: Slow carbs and fast carbs.

  • Slow carbs: These carbs come from fresh or dried fruit (especially berries), whole grains, beans, nuts, peas, and vegetables. Slow carbs offer more vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and fiber than fast carbs. When you choose slow carbs, you’re getting a 2-in-1 benefit. Not only are you eating nutrient-rich calories for energy, but many slow carbs contain fiber—which is what we want to include in a good snack. Here’s why: Fiber helps you feel full longer. Not only that, foods with fiber tend to take a little more time to chew, and eating slowly allows you to do so mindfully and recognize when you’re satisfied. Whole-grain foods such as oats, corn tortillas, and brown rice all give you some fiber, as do nuts, beans, pears, berries, avocados, and other fruits and vegetables. 

  • Fast carbs: Fast carbs move through your body quickly and can lead to sugar crashes. Examples of fast carbs include pretzels, candy, cookies, cheese puffs, or sweetened coffee drinks, and sodas. You can choose healthier alternatives to fast carbs, or you can combine them with more nutrient-rich foods. For example, you might choose whole-grain pretzels in place of regular pretzels, or you might pair regular pretzels with peanut butter and apple slices for a snack. 

Generally speaking, you want to eat more slow carbs and fewer fast carbs. 

Snack time!

11 delicious snacks with protein + fat + fiber 

Here’s how to use the protein + fat + fiber formula to create snack combos. The great thing about all of these is that the components are pretty widely available. That makes it easy to stock up so you can make quick snacks you can enjoy at home or take on the go. You can even look for ingredients that are prepared and portioned for you, like pre-cut veggies or single-serving portions of hummus.  

  1. Hummus + olives + toasted whole wheat pita or whole-grain chips 

  2. Black bean dip + guacamole + baked corn tortilla chips 

  3. Cheese + whole grain crackers + grapes or grape tomatoes 

  4. Roasted spiced chickpeas + cubed feta cheese

  5. Fresh mozzarella cheese + pesto + mini bell peppers 

  6. Tzatziki + olives + cucumber slices 

  7. Yogurt + almonds + oats + blackberries (blend into a smoothie!) 

  8. Handful of nuts + dark chocolate + dried fruit 

  9. Peanuts + pimento cheese dip + celery sticks 

  10. Tuna + lemon vinaigrette or Italian salad dressing + whole wheat pita chips 

  11. Peanut butter + dark chocolate chips + pear slices

Some snack ingredients do double duty, giving you more than one key nutrient. You can turn to these time and time again. For example:

Hummus: protein + healthy fat Guacamole: healthy fat + fiber Nut butters: protein + healthy fat Yogurt: protein + healthy fat Tuna: protein + healthy fat 

10 healthy snack recipes

If you love being in the kitchen, try these snack recipes. Many can be made in batches so you can make a few days’ worth in advance or share your healthy snacks with the people you live with. 

Asian Trail Mix

Crunchy Roasted Chickpeas

Dried Fruit and Nuts

Green Lentil Hummus with Herbs and Olives

White Bean and Kale Hummus

Whole Wheat Banana Nut Muffins

Beet Tzatziki

Guacamole and Shrimp Crackers Tomato and Cucumber Rounds

Spiced Walnuts and Greek Salad Parfait

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