Junk food has given snacking a bad name.
"Snacking in itself isn't a bad thing," says Elaine Magee, PhD, RD, author of numerous nutrition books, including Someone's in the Kitchen With Mommy and The Good News Eating Plan for Type II Diabetes.
Magee firmly believes in eating several small meals during the day -- "and that includes quality, healthy snacks," she tells WebMD.
Her philosophy: Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're comfortable. "There's a difference between stuffed and comfortable," she says. "If you truly follow that concept, you should be hungry every two or three hours."
Here's Magee's list of favorite healthy snacks -- plus the "bad guys" -- taken from another of her books, Fight Fat and Win: Light Meals and Snacks:
Popcorn. The fat in those microwave brands is the only negative here. Look for the healthier versions -- 98% fat-free. If you opt for plain popcorn, it's OK to drizzle a little margarine (one with no trans-fats) or butter. "It's better than full-fat brands, where you can't control the fat they add," says Magee.
Fruit and fruit smoothies. "Awesome, awesome healthy snack choice," she says. "For a complete, sustainable snack, make a fruit smoothie -- the dairy will sustain you."
Ice cream. Get real. You know ice cream isn't an everyday snack. "But there are good choices in ice-creamland," says Magee. Breyer's Light Vanilla is one of the best-tasting vanillas. Also, Smart Ones fudge bars are "really delicious -- they hit your chocolate and ice cream craving, plus they have four grams soluble fiber, 80 calories, hardly any fat, and very good flavor."
Cookies. Hmmm..."that's a toughie, because there's no way to get around it -- if they're fat-free, the cookies aren't so great, and you end up eating more," she tells WebMD. "Cookies are something you should enjoy, but not as a regular snack."
Cheese and crackers. Only if you pick a reduced-fat cheese that tastes good, like Kraft 2% and Jarlsberg Light, she advises. Lower fat means more protein, she adds. Crackers should be whole grain, low-fat, for this to be a healthy snack. The more fat in the cracker, the more trans-fat it will contain.
Cereals. Choose high-fiber, low-sugar cereals like oatmeal.
Yogurt/frozen yogurt. "We don't drink milk at my house, so yogurt is one of our calcium sources," she says. Yogurt doesn't need sugar to taste good. Buy plain yogurt and add something to it, like low-fat granola and fruit, for a truly healthy snack.
Candy bars. If you opt for mini-sized -- not supersized -- candy is OK. "Almost every day, I have a little bit of chocolate," says Magee. "If you deprive yourself, you'll end up compulsively overeating."
Popsicles/frozen fruit bars. Fine snack. "There are some excellent, 100% fruit-juice choices out there."
Vegetables. "Awesome, awesome, awesome snack," says Magee. "I have lot of success with my kids eating vegetables. I usually have a dip, like light ranch dip, and assorted vegetables on a platter."
Cake. Duh. Much as we love it, cake is not a great everyday snack. "When I'm talking about snack, I mean a nourishing snack, a healthy snack, a mini-meal," says Magee.
Peanut butter. It's OK, but only if you just eat a tablespoon, and just with wholegrain crackers or toast.
Granola bars. The chewier they are, the more sugar and fat they have, Magee tells WebMD. "The healthy ones are crunchy, and not coated in chocolate. You can make you own; there are good recipes out there, then you can choose the oil, fruits, grains that go into them."
Chips/nachos. Low-fat chips, canola oil chips are OK -- "but you're better off eating a real potato," says Magee.
Better yet, make a family-sized nacho platter with reduced-fat tortilla chips, fat-free vegetarian refried beans, chopped tomatoes, peppers, sour cream, shredded chicken, low-fat shredded cheese. "You can make it a meal if you add something nourishing to the chips," she says. Now that's a healthy snack.