Snacking can be a valuable part of a healthy eating plan—regular munching keeps blood sugar levels stable and can help prevent overeating later in the day--but the extent of these benefits depends on one crucial variable: the kind of food what you put into your mouth. Down a sugar-coated doughnut mid-morning or a greasy bag of chips at 3 p.m. and your "healthy" snacking routine is actually a belly-expanding, energy-zapping habit. A better idea: Nibble on nutritionally balanced 100- to 200-calorie snacks that contain some carbs, protein, and healthy fats. How much you eat depends on your activity level, but be sure to listen to your hunger cues. Read on for 15 quick and healthy ways to fuel your day.
(1 large cracker, 1 ounce of cheese)
"When you look at the cracker's ingredients, you want to see 'whole grain' or 'whole wheat'" flour. If the label says 'enriched' it contains white flour," Dudash says. Unlike white flour, whole grain flour contains fiber, which helps you feel satiated. Smear your cracker with an ounce of goat cheese (about the size of a golf ball) to add protein to your snack. Bonus: Goat cheese—especially the spreadable kind—tends to be lower in total and saturated fat than most cheeses, and is one of the healthiest cheeses you can eat.
(1 container, 6 ounces)
Mix plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit to take in several grams of fiber for a fraction of the sugar you'll find in flavored varietie—which typically contain less than a 1 g of dietary fiber and as much as 20 g of sugar per 6-ounce serving. But if you're in a pinch for time, Gans says it's okay to reach for a fruit yogurt. Just make sure you choose Greek yogurt. Even though you'll be getting a hefty dose of sugar, you'll at least be getting substantial protein (a whopping 14 g, and more than twice what you'll get from other types of yogurt. "Greek yogurt is a powerhouse. It has so much protein," Gans says.
An ounce of nuts packs tons of protein and fiber, as well as heart-healthy fats that can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and magnesium, which may help prevent type 2 diabetes. You can nab all of these benefits without consuming too many calories if you stick to the proper serving size. Try 30 pistachios, 23 almonds, or a mix. "The rule of thumb is [that a serving is about the size of] a shot class," Gans says.
There's no shortage of energy bars to choose from when you're on the go, just be sure to shop smart. "Look for bars that contain less than 200 calories and compare the nutritional labels," Gans says. You want to go with the bar that offers more fiber, less sugar, and adequate protein (about 5 to 10 g). In the ingredients list look for more natural sugars—for example, evaporated cane juice or honey—than added sugars. Also, look for nuts to ensure the bar's fat content is from a healthy source. "I like Kashi bars," she says.
At only about 70 calories, an egg is a protein-rich, low-calorie bite. The yoke is high in choline, which may lower cardiovascular disease and breast cancer risk, and also contains leutine, which promotes eye health. Boil a bunch at the beginning of the week, then when hunger strikes peel an egg for an easy, nutritious snack.
A quarter-cup serving contains only 130 calories and packs about one-third of your daily recommended fiber intake and 14 g of protein. "It's high in fiber, high in protein, and makes a fabulous snack," Gans says. And, unlike steamed edamame, it's ready to go—you don't have to take the time to peel each pod as you eat.
Quench your thirst and stifle your sweet tooth with a glass of low-fat chocolate milk. It's a perfect post-workout snack because of its mix of protein, carbs, sugar, nutrients, and electrolytes. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicated that athletes who drank low-fat chocolate milk following exercise had improved training times, more muscle, and less fat than those who stuck with typical sports drinks. Similarly, a Canadian study found that milk rehydrated children after exercise better than water did.
"Eat snack-size cottage cheese with a banana," Gans suggests. A number of brands sell single-serving 4- or 5-ounce cartons, which can help control portions. "I recommend a low-fat choice—it doesn't have to be fat-free because a little fat helps keep you full."
An individual, squeezable packet of pureed fruit is better for you than fruit juice and is great on the go, says Dudash. Each portion is made from pureed whole fruit and sweetened with juice concentrate, so it contains no added sugar. Some pouches even contain vegetables. While you won't get as much dietary fiber as you would from a piece of whole fruit or a serving of vegetables, a packet still provides a helping of vitamins and minerals at about 70 to 90 calories for a 3- to 4-ounce serving.
(1/2 cup for a mix with in-shell pistachios, 1/4 cup for a mix with shelled pistachios)
Mix pistachios, Asian sesame sticks, and wasabi-covered peas for a tasty and healthy treat to have on hand. "It offers a nice balance of protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates, and provides three different food groups," Dudash says. You'll get several grams of protein from the pistachios, a serving of grains from the sesame sticks, and fiber and additional vitamins from the peas.
(1 ounce of cheese)
It can be tempting to overeat if you don't carefully control your portions, which is why Gans suggests individual-size cheeses paired with fruit. Both snack components come already portion controlled, and together give you a mix of protein and carbs. "Laughing Cow Mini Babybel and string cheese are two types I always recommend," she says. Go for reduced-fat varieties to avoid excess saturated fat.
Just 4 ounces of juice provide a full serving of vegetables. "Make sure you look for juices with lower sodium," Dudash says. You should be able to find some with 140 mg of sodium or less per serving. "You can throw in hot sauce or lemon juice to perk up the flavor."
(1 tortilla, 1 tablespoon of hummus)
Slather hummus on a tortilla, roll it up, and you'll be on your way with a fiber-rich snack. "The first ingredient in hummus is chickpeas, which provide fiber and a little protein," Dudash says. Choose a tortilla that's 100% whole wheat.
First, choose a cereal like whole wheat Chex or Quaker Oatmeal Squares that is made with whole grains. "There are so many great whole grain cereals, so don't even bother with ones made with white flour," Dudash says. Then mix it with almonds and dried fruit. "Look for a dried fruit with no added sugar. Dried apricots and raisins are typically good choices." Your snack-time concoction will contain plenty of fiber from the cereal and protein from the nuts.
(1 rice cake, 2 tablespoons of nut butter)
A brown rice cake has about 35 calories, which makes an extra light and airy foundation for your snack. Improve the nutritional value by spreading your favorite nut butter on the cake. "If you go with peanut butter, I would stress choosing a natural peanut butter," Dudash says. Commercial peanut butter may contain excessive amounts of sugar or sodium that could negate the peanut butter's health benefits. For an added flavor boost, drizzle on a little honey or sprinkle chocolate chips on top.