Healthy, Satisfying Snacks
The right snack can take the edge off between-meal hunger, and nourish the body, too.
A snack is basically any food or drink consumed between meals. Researchers sometimes add qualifiers (a snack is smaller than a meal, provides less calories, or takes place at least 15 minutes after mealtime), but most snackers are probably just looking for a quick, convenient way to make it to the next meal without getting “hangry,” or a pleasurable break from the daily routine.
Snacking has been on the rise in the United States, and, according to a 2016 review in Advances in Nutrition, studies indicate that snacks now contribute close to one-third of the average American’s daily energy intake (calories). Unfortunately, highly processed, high-sugar, high-sodium foods are increasingly both available and consumed, and the snacks American’s often choose do little to either hold off hunger or nourish the body.
Snacks in Context: Everything a person eats and drinks contributes to their overall dietary pattern. “Snacks should fit into total dietary intake for the day,” says Helen Rasmussen, PhD, RD, a senior research dietitian at Tufts’ Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. There is consistent data showing that the typical American dietary pattern is high in things like refined starches, added sugars, and sodium (which have been linked to chronic disease), and low in foods rich in nutrients that support good health, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Unfortunately, typical American snacks like candy and chips do little to add to the healthfulness of dietary intake.
In a survey that asked people across the U.S. to rank their favorite snacks, 60 percent of the top-rated choices were some form of chocolate candy. Chips, ice cream, and refined-flour sweet or salty treats like cookies, crackers, and doughnuts also made the list. But snacks don’t have to be junk food. “Snacks are often overlooked as a path to healthier eating,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and editor-in-chief of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “I enjoy raw nuts with some dark chocolate many afternoons at work, and lots of fruit on the weekends. It’s amazing how satisfied your body can feel after a nourishing snack.”
A recent randomized trial by Tufts faculty Oliver Chen, PhD, Jeff Blumberg, PhD, and colleagues found that a snack of one-and-one-half ounces of almonds daily, with or without dark chocolate, improved blood cholesterol levels when replacing butter, cheese, and refined grains.
Shifting away from thinking of daily snacks as treats or extras to seeing them in their rightful place as part of the overall dietary pattern could help individuals make choices that contribute to the quality of their diet, rather than detracting from it. “People should choose snacks that fill holes in their diet,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist at Tufts’ Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “For some people it’s dairy, for some fruit and vegetables or whole grains.”
When the craving for something sweet hits, fruits mixed into snacks can add satisfying sweetness, as can small amounts of dark or semi-sweet chocolate.
Snacks with Staying Power: The ideal snack should be both nourishing and promote satiety (lasting fullness) to help improve health and also curb overeating. “Given the fact that Americans tend to overconsume calories, people should look for snacks that don’t have more than around 200 calories, but which will fill them up so they don’t keep looking for more things to graze on,” says Rasmussen. Evidence supports snacks that are higher in fiber, protein, or both as the most satiating. The authors of the 2016 review mentioned above point to studies that show foods naturally high in fiber, as well as foods with added fiber, appear to promote lasting satisfaction, perhaps because the fiber slows the release of starch and sugars into the bloodstream, helping to prolong satiety. Added fiber is often found in foods like snack bars, cookies, and even yogurts and ice cream, all of which typically also have added sugars. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (including “naked” popcorn), on the other hand, are natural sources of fiber that have no added sugars, are low in sodium, and also happen to be packed with healthful nutrients, so these choices are both nourishing and satisfying—which is everything a snack should be.