When you start fishing in your pocket for change for the evil vending machine, stop! Most people feel the need of a "little something" now and then during a busy day, but taking a second to "snack smart" will save you time, calories, and even money.
"Food is so available," Laurie A. Higgins, MS, RD, a pediatric nutrition educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, tells WebMD, "people don't take any with them and end up grabbing the fast, easy thing." This may be the worst, greasiest, sugariest, empty-calorie abomination on the face of the earth (OK, doughnut).
You know yourself, Higgins says, you know your age, weight, disease status (diabetes, low blood sugar), food allergies, whether you are pregnant or not. It's up to you to select the snack that fits both your individual needs and the occasion at hand. One size (and gooshy or crunchy mouth feel) does not fit all.
Snack With a Purpose
If you are a between-meals eater, look at your eating pattern, Roberta Larson Duyff, MS, RD, author of the American Dietetic Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, tells WebMD. "It may be a snack -- for you -- is a fourth meal or a good way to get a nutrient you missed. Think of it that way."
What are some common snacking moments, and what might you use to fill them (and yourself)?
When you need a wake-up or energy jolt. It's smart to eat a small breakfast of carbs and protein (cereal, egg, milk), says Duyff. It's even OK for most people to have a sensible amount of coffee, she says. "Have a latte with milk; that way you get a protein hit," she says (a candy bar will not give you the boost you want, she notes). Higgins also advises having milk or protein foods such as peanuts or cottage cheese.
Before leaving the office for a meeting. If you don't know when lunch is coming and need to be on top of your game, a piece of fruit or chunk of cheese is good. "Some people, especially young people, eat lunch early, so morning snacks may not even be needed, Higgins says.
Before working out. "The term 'carbo loading' refers to hours before an athletic event," Audrey T. Cross, PhD, professor of nutrition at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, tells WebMD. "But right before -- especially after a day of work -- you might want to prime the pump with a piece of fruit and a big glass of water."
After school or work. Depending on when dinner is scheduled, many people need a little nourishment when they get at home. Pediatric nutrition specialist Higgins recommends adolescents who are eating dinner late or running back out to athletic events eat a small meal consisting of a sandwich and a glass of milk -- regardless of whether they are diabetic or not. "Otherwise, young people come home and eat all the way until dinner, a cookie, a cracker, a soda; they are never satisfied. A sandwich is better."
Smart Snacks on a Diet
When you are cutting calories. Even adolescents can read labels, Higgins says. Popcorn, pretzels, or baked chips can be a good snack -- in moderation. Put the rest away on a high shelf. Cut-up veggies also make you work hard to chew and are satisfying. Cross recommends rice cakes with a little wake-up of peanut butter or cheese. "You are less likely to be hungry an hour later," she says.
During TV time. "I am not in favor of eating while watching TV," Cross says. "Have you ever watched someone eat while the TV is on? They are not tasting anything. They just need an activity to do while staring, and eating has become popular."
When out with friends. Sometimes it's also popular to "go for dessert" or grab a snack with your buddies. Cross recommends splitting a dessert. "If you get ice cream or To Die for Chocolate Torte, get one scoop or divide it," she says. "The real reason for going out is to be with your date or friends -- not the food."
At the movies. The movies are an example of an activity tied to food rather than time of day. "Why is this?" Duyff asks. "When we sit at the computer, we need a beverage. When we go to the movies, we need popcorn. We need to change our mindset."
Before partying. "It's an urban myth that you can coat your stomach with milk before drinking," laughs Duyff. "If there is going to be a lot of food, she adds, you may concentrate on eating rather than being with your friends and socializing. In that case, it might be better to have a snack beforehand to take the edge off. A cracker and cheese or those little carrots are good choices." (Remember, Duyff says, half a bottle of wine can contain up to 500 calories. In fact, Cross recommends drinking an equal amount of water after every drink.)
On the airplane. Call ahead and see if food is being provided, Cross advises. If not, bring a sandwich on board. Nothing salty or your feet might swell. "Coffee or another diuretic may mean more trips to the bathroom," Cross adds. "Water is good. And make it a juicy sandwich, with tomatoes."
Before bed. People who eat dinner early may get hungry at bed time. Milk contains tryptophan, which makes some people sleepy. On the flip side, Duyff says, chocolate ice cream may be a little buzzy and keep you awake. Chai tea can be soothing, Cross says. Eating too much and lying down causes heartburn in some people, so beware.
When traveling. Wise travelers bring packaged peanut butter crackers or other familiar little noshes, such as self-opening cans of tuna, in case restaurants are closed (forget those mini-bars).
If you want to plan ahead and remove temptation, Higgins says, check out some regular snack options online. You can go to the McDonald's web site (search on "nutrition"), for instance, and scope out the calorie and carb counts on the new offerings. She does this with her diabetic clients.
Although it's hard to "snackify," it's relaxing and softens stress.
But what about snacking against boredom? "Boredom or stress," Duyff says, "should not signal 'time to eat.' How about walking the dog or dancing around to a CD? Today it might be a celery stick, but tomorrow a whole bowl of something.
"A bowl of ice cream or a juicy peach should be enjoyed," Duyff adds. "That means every bite."
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.