With more and more evidence showing that eating multiple small meals throughout the day is key to healthy weight management, snacks have be raised to a new level of respect. As such, not only is it important to include them, but to ensure they are of high quality. Today’s busy lifestyle make may that seem to be an impossible combination, but it really isn’t. Here we give you some tips for ensuring your snacks are not only square meals that support an efficient metabolism, but also are fast and convenient – and of course, delicious and to your taste.
1. Combine a protein with a carbohydrate
This can be in a single food, or eaten separately
2. Try to include a fruit or vegetable
3. Try to include a source of calcium
4. Try to include a source of fluids
Dairy and Vegan Versions
One of the most popular snack foods is yogurt. Both dairy and organic soy versions are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D – which most people don’t get enough of – and protein to support your metabolism, protect your muscle tissue during weight loss, and control hunger throughout the day. In plain dairy yogurt from cow’s milk, the natural lactose sugar has a lower glycemic impact than other sugars. Greek yogurt has a higher amount of protein combined a lower amount of carbohydrates compared to other yogurts. Be sure to check for ‘live’ probiotic cultures that help support your digestive and immune systems.
Flavored yogurts are higher in sugar or artificial sweeteners and may be lower in protein, and the fruit added is not in its best state. Therefore, a better option is to add real fruit with its good carbohydrates (fibers!) and phytochemicals, with a better natural sweetener to taste, such as inulin, which will actually enhance the benefits of the probiotics (see our article Better Sweeteners).
If you want similar benefits, but eating is not an option where you find yourself at snacktime, you can drink kefir, which some say be an even better probiotic source than yogurt in terms of health benefits.
Of course, milk and dairy/vegan-based shakes are another excellent liquid option. These can be made by pureeing together several food groups to make a complete, delicious, satisfying meal that is also fat and convenient (read: portable). For example, dairy or vegan milk, ground flax or chia seeds, and fresh fruit and/or vegetables. Be sure to take advantage of our recipe ideas on the site!
Meat, Fish, Poultry, and Eggs
Fresh animal foods can be cooked, refrigerated, and the meat, fish, and poultry sliced as needed to make cold cuts that can be taken anywhere and eaten as is or with bread as a sandwich. Eggs can be hard-boiled and eaten as is on-the-go, or made into a salad to spread on bread or crackers – or simply added to a salad for a super protein boost.
Certain canned fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines are high in protein and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids – especially if canned in water or tomato sauce, but also oil high in high omega-3s, such as canola. Canned in regular ‘vegetable’ oil is not recommended, as it not only is too high in omega-6 fats, but these actually deplete the fish of their natural omega-3 content. Some are high in sodium, so if you have a selection, check the labels for the product with the least amount. These foods can be eaten straight from the can, as well as added to salads and spread on breads and crackers.
Canned chicken can be another option, though these are generally not a source of omega-3 fats. However, the protein is still top-quality. Be on the lookout for sodium content.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a known to be good sources of all the major nutrients – high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates with fiber, and healthy fats. In addition to preserving muscle mass and satiety, nuts have been linked to many beneficial health properties, in part due to their important vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, including antioxidants. These include balancing blood levels of fats, sugar, and hormones important to weight management, as well as protection against other inflammation-related diseases.
Nuts and seeds considered to be excellent all-around choices in terms of protein content and fat make-up include:
- Hazelnuts (filberts)
- Chia seeds
- Hemp hearts
These can be snacked on as-is – nothing more convenient than that! – or added chopped to salads or yogurts, or ground to be added to shakes or spreads.
Legumes – beans and lentils – are unique in that they have characteristics of all three of the major food groups: proteins, complex starches, and fibers and phytochemicals similar to vegetables. They can be eaten cooked as is, hot with savory seasoning in casseroles, soups, or burgers, or cold with vinegar in a salad or sweetened and added to shakes – the possibilities are many and wide-ranging. Note that just like shakes, hearty soups can be made ahead of time, stored, and taken in a thermos for drinking your snack meals on-the-go.
A very popular snack found in the freezer section is edamame, or green (‘immature’) soybeans. These are associated with fewer digestive challenges as are generally attributed to soy, and are easily prepared in the microwave for a delicious as-is snack high in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and metabolism-supporting phytonutrients, or pureed into a delicious dip or spread.
Some legumes are also sometimes available baked and seasoned to be enjoyed as a traditional snack food. Fava bean snacks and dried peas are the most popular of these. When choosing such products, be sure to read the label to be sure you’re not getting hydrogenated fats, excessive sodium, or artificial preservatives.
Breads and Spreads
Whole grain breads, crackers, and wraps (tortillas) are convenient ready-made sources of high-quality energy, and the perfect platform to take on spreads – as sandwiches or simple snack-type foods – to make nutritious all-in-one mini main courses, ready to be completed with a fruit or vegetable.
A variety of spreads are made from just about any type of nut – to provide alternatives to peanut butters. These include almond butter, cashew butter, hazelnut butter, macadamia butter, walnut butter, and for those of you allergic to tree nuts, sunflower seed butter, chia seed butter, hemp butter, and sesame seed butter, also known as tahini. You’ll also find coconut butter and chestnut butter spreads, though these tend to not be significant sources of protein. It is best to choose ‘all-natural’ types without hydrogenated fats and excessive added sugar and salt.
In addition, ‘raw’ cheeses made from nuts are available, generally in health-oriented or gourmet shops. Though they are not meltable, they are offered in various textures and tastes that can be applied to any recipe. The fat profile is generally more beneficial than that found in soy cheese products.
Spreads can also be made from legumes. The best-known of these are made from pinto beans in Mexican cuisine and chickpeas or garbanzo beans (hummus) in Middle Eastern cuisine – though any legume can be pureed and seasoned to make a protein-rich, fiber-rich, antioxidant-rich delicacy.
Cereals are often thought of as breakfast foods, but they can be highly convenient snacks, and the whole grains in quality cereals can be highly nourishing when you need it most. Dry cereal can be thrown into mini-bags or plastic containers, and hot cereal can be stored in a thermos. Both can be eaten as is or alongside a source of protein such as nuts or milk.
A popular low-fat alternative to chips are pretzels. While these have gotten a bad name because of refined flours and salt/sodium content, newer products use whole grains – and note that many pretzels, even salted products, have much less sodium than in chips and similar snack foods.
For tips on making good cereal choices, see our article Better Grains.
Fruits and Vegetables
Whole or cut fresh fruits and vegetables are classic healthy snacks. Rinse and prepare or just pack them up at home, and you’re on your way. Many vegetables are ‘free’ foods, so you don’t even need to worry about limiting amounts. Since it is recommended to get at least five servings total per day of fruits and vegetables, it is easy to see how including them in snacks is important to meeting this goal.
Dried fruits and vegetables can be found in great variety, both prepackaged and in the bulk foods section. If you are sensitive to preservatives commonly used in these products – particularly sulfites – sulfite-free options can be found, often in health-oriented stores. It is also recommended to look for products with minimal-to-no added salt or sugar (cranberries are a notable exception wherein sweetener is always added).
Some fruits and vegetables are made into snack food alternatives to traditional processed chips – apple and kale are among the most popular, though dried/roasted seaweed are also being recognized. As with all prepared foods, be sure there are no unpleasant surprises in the Nutrition Facts before buying them – if you have a choice, go for products with no added fat or with good fats such as olive oil. When in doubt, however, remember that fresh is always best whenever possible
Popcorn can be a great snack food – high in fiber, and the perfect accompaniment to a protein source. Be sure to get ‘natural flavor’ or ‘unflavored,’ as the oil (often hydrogenated) and flavoring agents in readymade and microwaveable products are among the most unrecommended of the food additives. Remember also that corn is one of the most widely genetically modified crops, so if you are concerned about GMOs, try to find a product that is organic or labeled non-GMO.
As you can see, no matter what your lifestyle or taste, there are many options for convenient, delicious, and above all, nutritious snack options that can meet the need for mini-meals to support a healthy metabolism. Use these tips to give yourself an extra edge in your weight loss journey, and enjoy the ride!