Snacking itself isn’t bad for you, it’s what you snack on that can cause the damage, according to Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte.
Below, she clears up some myths about snacking and offers a generous list of nibbles that will satisfy your hunger without sabotaging your health goals. (Hint: If you like to nosh around bedtime, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what she had to say!)
Myth 1: This is a healthy food, so I can eat as much as I want.
Let’s do some quick snack-math: Six Triscuit crackers and two tablespoons of Sabra hummus is a healthy snack that provides fiber, protein and micronutrients, as well as 190 calories. However, if you eat half the box of Triscuits and half the tub of hummus, you’ll be consuming a whopping 1,375 calories!
“That is far more than a typical meal,” Anderson explained, “and for some people, it’s also more calories than they need in an entire day.”
Myth 2: I need to eat now, because my stomach is rumbling.
“A rumble in your stomach can certainly be a sign that you need food,” Anderson explained. “But it can also occur when digestion is taking place, or when air (gas) is trapped in our intestines.”
If you’ve recently eaten a meal and feel you shouldn’t be hungry yet, try distracting yourself by going for a walk or switching tasks instead of reaching for a snack as soon as you feel sensations in your stomach. Those random little hunger pangs often fade away again in moments.
“Also, we sometimes feel hungry when the body is trying to tell us that we need more fluids. So ask yourself, when you feel like snacking, if you’re getting enough hydration,” she said. “Drink a glass of water, and then wait 15 to 20 minutes. You may be amazed at how often your hunger disappears!”
Myth 3. I can just grab a snack from the vending machine.
“Most vending-machine and check-out-aisle purchases are junk foods, not snacks,” Anderson said.
Processed snack foods, laden with fats, salt, sugar, food colorings and preservatives, can increase harmful inflammation and lead to life-threatening conditions like cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
On the other hand, choosing fresh foods for snacks supports your body with the healthy nutrients it needs. Another bonus is that they’re often lower in calories. So, grab a refreshing piece of fruit instead of those gummy vending machine fruit snacks.
Myth 4: Snacking after dinner is terrible for you.
Surprise! This is not necessarily true. It all hinges on what — and how much — you have for a snack.
“If it’s been several hours since dinner, having a portion-controlled healthy snack before bed, like a handful of walnuts, is a good way to maintain blood sugar levels, ward off hunger and help you sleep overnight,” Anderson said. “But if you’re choosing foods that are high in sugar or caffeine, such as chocolate, they could keep you awake.”
Larger portions are problematic as well. Eating too much before bed could interrupt sleep by contributing to acid reflux (which can progress to GERD), and that can certainly cause you to toss and turn throughout the night. Anderson suggests aiming for healthy snacks that are 200 calories or less.
“We all need a certain amount of calories every day for health. How and when we choose to consume those calories is largely dependent on our lifestyles and nutrition needs,” she said. “If you need help creating a nutrition plan for your needs, a dietitian can help.”