The Art of Power Snacking

Try some snacks that pack a nutritional wallop for a small caloric price

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 12, 2008

One of the biggest myths about snacking is that it's a bad thing. The truth is that it's not snacking itself that's bad for us. It's all the junk food people like to snack on that gives snacking a bad name: chips, candy bars, french fries, soda, and so on.

In fact, if you eat until you are comfortable (not "full") at lunch, chances are you'll need a mid-afternoon snack to tide you over until dinner with plenty of energy. The secret is to snack only when you need to and to select smarter snacks.

Try these seven tips for smart snacking. Let's get going!

If you try some of the healthier snack alternatives out there, you may well find that you enjoy them. This appears to be true even of college students. One college dining hall discovered that when it offered healthy snacks along with traditional ones, a significant portion of the student population actually opted for health. The dining hall, which regularly sold snack bags containing sugar-laden soda, cookies, and candy, began also offering "smart snack bags," containing baked chips, low-fat cookies, fruit cups, sunflower seeds, and water. And for every two students who bought the traditional, sugar-soaked snack bag, there was one who bought the "smart" snack alternative.

If you're one of the many people whose idea of a good snack is something crunchy and salty, know that you can have your crunch and eat smart, too. Here are a few possibilities for more healthful crunchy snack foods:

  • Low Fat Kettle Crisps (110 calories, 1.5 grams fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 2 grams fiber per 1 ounce.)
  • Baked Tostitos (110 calories, 1 gram fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 2 grams fiber per 1 ounce.)
  • Reduced Fat Triscuits (120 calories, 3 grams fat, 0 g saturated fat, and 3 grams fiber per 1 ounce)
  • Padrinos Reduced Fat Tortilla Chips (130 calories, 4 grams fat, 0.5 grams saturated fat, and 1 gram fiber per ounce.)

You've no doubt heard of the trouble with trans fats by now (they raise "bad" and lower "good" cholesterol). Well, guess which type of food they tend to lurk in? Snack foods - things like crackers, snack cakes and pies, frozen fried microwave snacks, and cookies. Anything with "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" listed among the top three ingredients on the label is suspect. Some manufacturers have done a good job of reformulating products to remove trans fats, but keep an eye out anyway.

Don't decide whether to buy a food based on the advertising banners on the front of the package. Check out the Nutrition Information label on the back, too. This will tell you what the company calls a portion of that food. Prepare to be amazed: What they say is a serving and what you actually eat may be completely different. The Nutrition Information label lists the calories; grams of fat, saturated fat and trans fat; and, sometimes, grams of sugar. So if the label says a serving is 1 ounce of chips and you eat 2 or 3 ounces, double or triple the nutrition information numbers.

There are all kinds of "energy" or "power" bars being marketed under the guise of convenience and good nutrition. The truth is, these carry-anywhere bars can come in handy. But a review of many different energy bar labels reveals that choosing a bar is a matter of "picking your poison." That is, deciding what means most to you - taste, fat, fiber, protein, sugars? Generally, if bars are "low in carbs" they're also low in fiber and/or higher in fat. (Some even have quite a bit of saturated fat.) And if a bar tastes pretty good, it probably has at least 12 grams of sugars per serving.

When picking one, look for at least 3 grams of fiber (preferably 5 grams), at least 5 grams of protein (preferably 10 grams), lower amounts of fat with no saturated fat, and fewer than 20 grams of sugar.

Some French researchers studied the effect of two types of snacks (one high in carbohydrate and one high in protein), given a few hours after lunch, on eight lean young men. They concluded that when people who aren't hungry eat a snack -- whether it's high in carbs or protein -- they do not tend to reduce the number of calories they eat at dinner. The researchers believe this is evidence that snacking can play a role in obesity.

Are you wondering why these men weren't "hungry" a few hours after eating lunch? Researcher Didier Chapelot, MD, PhD, of the University of Paris, said that, in France, most people don't eat anything between lunch and dinner. He also noted that people who usually eat three times a day (as the men in this study regularly did), are not generally hungry until 5-7 hours after lunch.

There are lots of reasons to avoid fatty snacks, including the possibility that they actually encourage overeating. Pennsylvania State University researchers found that rats who were regularly fed a high-fat diet ended up overeating high-calorie, high-fat foods, compared with rats fed a low-fat diet. The researchers suspect this has to do with a decrease in sensitivity to a hormone that normally sends a "stop eating" message to the brain.

Convenience and fast foods high in fat and sodium made up 57% of the food advertised during the most popular TV shows, according to research by University of Illinois speech communication professor Kristen Harrison, PhD.

Harrison's research also revealed that snacking is featured in food advertising more often than all three meals combined (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). So if you watch TV, keep in mind that food companies are working to lure you into buying their snack foods and junk foods.

The perfect snack is one that packs some nutritional power but comes with a low caloric price tag.

To hold hunger at bay and provide a constant supply of energy, you want a snack that includes some carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and a little fat (preferably "smart fats" like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). Look for at least 5 grams of protein and about 5 grams of fiber.

These five simple "power snacks" have all this and more:

  • Pear with cheese (1 large pear with 1 1/2 ounces of reduced-fat cheese like light Jarlsberg): 242 calories, 13 g protein, 5 g fiber, 8 g fat
  • A handful of almonds (3 tablespoons) and dried fruit (3 tablespoons): 250 calories, 7 g protein, 4 g fiber, 14 g fat (mostly monounsaturated).
  • 1 ounce baked tortilla chips with 1/4 cup fat-free refried beans topped with an ounce of reduced-fat cheese and 1/8 cup tomato salsa: 250 calories, 13 g protein, 4.5 g fiber, 9 g fat.
  • 6 ounces low-fat or nonfat light yogurt with 1/2 cup fruit, topped with 1/4 cup low-fat granola: 207 calories, 10 g protein, 5 g fiber, 2.5 g fat.
  • 1 cup edamame with shells, or 1/2 cup edamame without shells, drizzled with 1 teaspoon olive oil and a sprinkling of black pepper: 159 calories, 10 g protein, 5 g fiber, 9 g fat (mostly monounsaturated). (Edamame, boiled green soybeans, are available in the frozen food section of many supermarkets)

Here are a couple of power snack recipes for those times when you need a little something extra.

Journal as: 2 slices whole grain bread + 2 ounces low fat cheese + 1/2 cup "vegetables with 1 tsp fat" OR
1 "sandwich and burger lean meat"

1 whole-wheat pita pocket
1/8 cup bottled pizza sauce
1/3 cup shredded, part-skim mozzarella
1/3 cup finely chopped veggies of your choice (broccoli florets, green onions, tomato, sliced mushrooms, etc.)

  • Lay pita round on a baking sheet and spread pizza sauce over the top. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top of the pizza sauce and top with a combination of veggies.
  • Broil in toaster oven (or microwave on HIGH for about a minute) until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Yield: 1 serving

Per serving: 250 calories, 16 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 8.5 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 558 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.

Journal as: 2 slices whole-grain bread + 1 ounce regular cheese OR
1 "sandwich and burger lean meat"

1 small whole-wheat dinner roll (such as OroWeat 100% whole-wheat rolls)
2 teaspoons pesto sauce (bottled or in the refrigerator or freezer section)
2 ounces thinly sliced turkey breast
1/8 cup shredded provolone cheese, firmly packed

  • Cut dinner roll open and lay the two halves on a piece of foil or small baking sheet and spread 1 teaspoon pesto sauce over each half. Lay a double thickness of small turkey pieces over each half. Sprinkle shredded cheese over the top of turkey.
  • Broil in toaster oven (or pop in the microwave for about a minute) for a couple of minutes until cheese is melted.

Yield: 1 serving

Per serving: 250 calories, 17 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 8.5 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 700 mg sodium (depending on the products you use). Calories from fat: 30%.