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Say "Yes" or "No" to Snacks?

April 2024

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Many research studies have been conducted to see if snacking has a positive or negative impact on nutrition and general health. No definite answers exist due to varied definitions of "snacking". Studies have found that various public health and nutrition organizations discourage snacking that includes foods and beverages that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. But, we know that snacks contribute at least 10% of daily calories, with a frequency of eating about two snacks per day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 includes recommendations for nutrient-dense snacks, such as raw vegetables, fresh fruit, nuts, whole grains and plain yogurt.

What are the Benefits of Healthy Snacks?

Healthy snacks provide energy between meals when blood glucose levels drop. They also help to curb a person's appetite to prevent overeating at the next meal. They will provide healthy nutrients and possible phytochemicals and protein from fruit and nuts, and they can help one to maintain a healthy overall diet. Sometimes healthy snacks become part of the overall meal plan for those with small appetites that may be due to illness or choice.

What is the Downside of Snacking?

If snacks are large portions of high calorie foods, then a person would gain weight due to the excess food and calories. Some would end up skipping meals that might limit important nutrients . If snacks end up being highly processed foods that contain salt, sugar and fats, this can encourage more of these foods and less intake of important fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean protein foods. Many Americans live on fast food for snacks and many meals. This eating behavior and diet quality leads to many types of major diseases including obesity, heart disease and certain types of cancer. A continuous diet of poor-quality food that lacks required vitamins and minerals eventually leads to disease.

Try Healthful Power Snacking

Take the time to add snacks to your meal planning so that they are part of your total day's food intake. These snacks are a positive addition to your overall intake. Healthy snacks add to your total daily nutrition and are a positive addition for your health. Think of a typical day and the times you feel you need some energy. Is it mid-morning or mid-afternoon or after dinner? Ask yourself if you are really hungry OR are you feeling bored, stressed out, tired, or angry. Do you snack because of your emotions or because you are hungry? Try some mindfulness strategies if you are eating out of emotions rather than hunger. Decide which snacks will satisfy you and alleviate those hunger pangs.

Studies show that snacking on whole foods containing protein, fiber, and whole grains (e.g., nuts, yogurt, popcorn) enhances satisfaction. If you choose an apple when you really want salty popcorn or a creamy yogurt, you may feel unsatisfied and want more. If you do not have a specific craving but are trying to quiet hunger, choose a snack that is high in fiber and water that will fill your stomach quickly. Consider these nutritious snack choices depending on your preference:

Crunchy—raw vegetable sticks, nuts, seeds, whole grain crackers, apple
Creamy—cottage cheese, yogurt, hummus, avocado
Sweet—chopped fresh fruit, dark chocolate.
Savory/Salty—cube or slice of cheese, roasted chickpeas, handful of nuts, nut butter.

Remember, a snack portion should be enough to satisfy your hunger but not so much that it interferes with your appetite for a meal or adds too many calories. A general rule of thumb is to aim for about 150–250 calories per snack. This is equivalent to an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter, or a string cheese with 6 whole grain crackers. If choosing a packaged snack such as chips, dried fruit, or nuts, read the Nutrition Facts panel to learn what one serving is. Keep in mind that it is easy to eat two or three portions of some types of snacks! Plan ahead and take small steps to plan and consume healthy snacks that keep you satisfied and healthy.