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Smart Snacking: Ask the Nutritionist

Registered dietitian Carolyn O'Neil answers your questions about smarter snacking habits.

Question:
How do you define "smart snacking"?
Answer:

Think of a snack as a mini-meal, which should be under 150 calories total. Snacks should be balanced like meals, with sources of protein, whole grain, and fruits and vegetables, such as low-fat cheese with apple slices and whole grain crackers, or low-fat yogurt with a little granola sprinkled on top and some berries..

 

Question:
How can I curb my craving for potato chips?
Answer:

If you crave potato chips, get to know them! Look at the suggested serving size and stick to it for a small snack. Do not eat out of a big bag because you won’t know when to stop. Ten chips, depending on the brand, is usually about 150 calories.

Question:
I'm disabled and my ability to exercise is limited. What healthy, low-calorie snacks would you suggest for me?
Answer:

If you get hungry for a snack, reach for fruits and vegetables. They provide all kinds of healthy nutrients, many of which most Americans don’t get enough of from regular meals. Use snacks to improve your nutrition. But stick to a snack budget of about 100 calories. My favorites include apples, berries, and celery sticks (which have almost no calories) with a wedge or two of low-fat cheese. Low-fat or nonfat yogurt is also a good option. Even a glass of skim milk can help fill you up and provides nine essential nutrients, including 8 grams of protein.

Question:
It's been one year since I quit smoking. I find that I'm always nervous and hungry, so I eat. I know that I should have snacks that are only 200 calories, but my snacks aren't curbing my appetite. What do you suggest I do?
Answer:

Congratulations on your decision to kick the habit! Many people who quit smoking find that they turn to food to take the place of smoking, so know that you're not alone. First, get to know your true hunger cues. Are you truly hungry, or really just bored and anxious and therefore reaching for food? If you really aren't hungry, distract yourself with another activity. Paint your nails, read a magazine, take a shower, go for a walk, or phone a friend. If you are hungry for a snack choose something crunchy and readily available, such as precut apple slices or carrots cut into chip shapes for dipping with hummus. And try to eat mindfully. Eat slowly enough that you're actually tasting the flavors of your food.

Question:
I absolutely have to have something sweet after dinner. What sweets do you recommend so that I don't ruin my diet?
Answer:

Enjoy a small square of really good dark chocolate, and savor the flavors. But don’t eat too much because the caffeine in chocolate can keep some people awake. A cup of decaffeinated tea is a good idea, too. And there are many with delicious, sweet-tasting flavors that can also help you sleep. Try rediscovering the natural sweetness of in-season and ripened fruits. A slice or two of mango is a terrific treat for the sweet tooth and provides healthy nutrients that can be good for your skin, too.

Question:
Does a piece of fruit -- like a single orange -- really make for a "smart" snack? Why or why not?
Answer:

Whole fruit is always a better choice than drinking fruit juice. Studies show that the same number of calories in apple juice, for instance, is NOT as satisfying as the same number of calories in a whole apple. Oranges contain many nutrients -- not just vitamin C -- and are a good source of filling fiber. A solid snack really should contain more than one piece of fruit, though. Enjoy the orange with a small container of nonfat yogurt to round out your mini-meal and to get some protein that can help you feel fuller longer.

Question:
I'm a 25-year-old mother of two young children. My main obstacle to losing weight is that I am not sure what to eat and what to stay away from. If all I can snack on is dry celery and carrots, I will certainly fail. Can you give me a few quick and easy snacking options, or some realistic guidelines to follow in choosing snacks for myself?
Answer:

I agree! Celery and carrots can get really boring. Think of food pairings with your snack time. Look for low-fat, snack-size cheeses at the supermarket. Some come in little triangles and contain only 45 calories each. Unwrap one or two of these and enjoy with sliced cucumber. Or try a small handful of almonds, walnuts, or pecans -- about one ounce -- with a small carton of non-fat fruit-flavored yogurt. Always ask yourself, “Do I need a snack because I didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t eat enough lunch?” Too many Americans rely on constant snacking because they are not eating proper meals, which can happen easily if you are taking care of two young children.

Question:
Do protein shakes make good snacks, or are they only appropriate as meal replacements?
Answer:

It depends on the amount of calories. Always check the total calories of protein shakes. If the shake is over 150 calories, it’s a meal replacement. Instead, have a much less expensive glass of nonfat milk, which is a protein drink, too. With only 86 calories per 8 ounces, a cup of nonfat milk provides 8 grams of protein. Even a cup of fat-free chocolate milk is a good option.

Question:
Is diet soda any better for me than regular soda?
Answer:

Drinking a diet soda can save you about 150 calories. But diet sodas do NOTHING for you nutritionally. If you want something bubbly, I suggest carbonated water, many of which are flavored. Learn to enjoy unsweetened or slightly sweetened carbonated beverages instead of soda.

Question:
Sometimes when I plan to eat a small snack, I find myself binge eating. How can I put an end to this awful habit?
Answer:

Never eat chips or cookies out of bags and boxes. Count out a serving and place it on a plate. Avoid mindlessly eating and munching in front of the TV or computer screen. Focus on and savor each bite. If you are super hungry before you begin eating your snack, slow down a bit and drink a glass of water. Then enjoy your snack at a leisurely pace.

Question:
Can eating ice cream have a negative effect on my cholesterol?
Answer:

Ice cream -- especially premium ice cream that is higher in fat -- does contain saturated fats, which can contribute to increased cholesterol levels. Additionally, some ice creams are made with eggs. So they contain cholesterol, which can contribute to increased blood cholesterol levels. If you are an ice cream lover, read the nutrition facts label to identify a proper serving size, and stick to that. If your doctor has suggested avoiding sources of saturated fats and cholesterol, you should consider switching from ice cream to non-fat frozen desserts. Look in your supermarket for desserts that are lower in fat and cholesterol, and also not as sweet.

Question:
When teaching children about the benefits of snacking on fruits and veggies, is it correct to say that, while all fruits and veggies have health benefits, eating a variety of colorful fruits is best for optimal health? I was told that purple fruits and veggies provide for healthy digestion; green for a healthy immune system; red and orange for healthy vision, skin, and teeth; and white and yellow for a healthy heart. Is this correct? I don't want to misinform my students.
Answer:

I like the attention to color. And it’s true that the pigments in fruits and vegetables do indicate the presence of antioxidants and other healthy nutrients. But I don’t think we can simplify the story by saying that each color item is beneficial for only one particular health factor. Yes, orange and red produce does indicate that beta-carotenes are present. And they are beneficial for skin and eye health. But beta-carotenes are found in deep green produce, as well. The Produce for Better Health Foundation has a web site that provides lots of good information on produce color and nutritional benefits.

Question:
I'm a 30-year-old woman on a 1,400 calorie-a-day diet. What kind of snacks do you recommend I eat to help boost my weight loss, or at least stay within my daily calorie allowance?
Answer:

Well, that’s a pretty low-calorie diet for the day. But if you enjoy 300 for breakfast, 400 lunch, 500 dinner, that leaves you 200 for snacks. I suggest a 100-calorie snack mid-morning and 100-calorie snack either midafternoon or after dinner, depending on your schedule). Instead of reaching for those 100-calorie snack packs of chips and cookies, find more nutritious foods in 100-calorie packs such as a big apple, a bowl of berries, a glass of nonfat milk, a carton of nonfat yogurt, a piece of string cheese with celery, or a slice of turkey wrapped in lettuce.

Question:
My friend has lost over 60 pounds in 9 months by drinking a multivitamin fruit and vegetable protein shake as a snack. What do you think about these kinds of products for weight loss?
Answer:

It depends on what you're eating and drinking the rest of the time. It’s all about total calories for the day. I like that the shake has fruits, vegetables, protein, and vitamins. All dieters need to make sure they get enough nutrients when they cut calories, and the protein can help curb hunger. But again, it’s all about the total calories you take in over the course of the day.

Question:
I have a hard time fighting my urge to snack at night. What is a good late-night snack to help kill my hunger?
Answer:

First, consider whether or not you're eating enough for dinner. What time do you eat dinner in relation to when you go to sleep? Your urge to snack at night may be because you are still hungry from not eating enough for dinner. Revisit how much you are consuming for dinner and make sure it’s a balanced meal including lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables. If you are still hungry for a snack at night, try a cup of soothing chamomile tea with an oatmeal cookie (serving size not to exceed 100 calories). The tea will help you sleep and the cookies can be a good source of healthy fiber. Or look for calorie-controlled non-fat frozen dairy desserts with servings that contain no more than 100 calories.

Question:
What kind of snacks would you recommend for people who are diabetic?
Answer:

A diet to help control diabetes is often individually prescribed -- based on body weight and lifestyle -- to help keep blood sugar levels in control. The best snacks for diabetics will contain some protein and some fiber to help slow down food absorption, and therefore help control blood sugar levels and prevent spiking. Avoid simple sugars, such as in cookies and candies, and choose whole grain crackers, low-fat cheeses, maybe a slice of turkey or leftover chicken. And pair these foods with a small amount of fruit if desired. Know that fruit, while healthy, can be high in natural sugars that will spike blood sugar levels unless combined with a protein source to slow down their absorption in your body.

Question:
What kind of snacks could help speed up my metabolism?
Answer:

None. The only way to speed up your metabolism is through exercise, specifically muscle-training exercises to increase lean muscle mass, which burns more calories than body fat.

Question:
Does it matter if I drink something or eat something as a snack? I want to be satiated when I'm done.
Answer:

Yes, it matters. Beverages that contain protein are more filling over the long run, such as fat-free milk. And studies have shown that a piece of whole fruit is more satisfying than drinking fruit juice.

Thank you for joining us for WebMD Ask the Nutritionist. Be sure to check in on Wednesday, April 11, at 1 p.m. ET, when we will discuss "Eating for Heart Health". Sign up if you'd like an email reminder the day before the event.

WebMD Ask the Specialist Transcript

Reviewed by Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD on March 13, 2012

The opinions expressed in this section are of the Specialist and the Specialist alone. They do not reflect the opinions of WebMD and they have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance or objectivity. WebMD is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on WebMD. 

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