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June 2002



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Health-care Information    Canadian Medical Association     American Medical Association

Snack Smarts

By Karen Collins, R.D.




People often have mixed feelings about snacks. Many find that meals alone don't provide the fuel they need throughout the day, yet they aren't sure how to snack without "overdoing." The key to choosing the right snack is to consider your individual needs.



The first question is whether you really are hungry at all. Sometimes our bodies simply need fluid and we mistakenly give food instead. If you think that might be the case, see what happens when you have a no- or low-calorie drink as a snack. Try plain or flavored water, unsweetened iced or hot tea, or tomato-vegetable juice.


If you want to limit calories but need more than just a drink, you can choose from a variety of snacks with less than 100 calories. Many fruits and vegetables fit the bill, and their bulky fiber helps supply that "full" feeling as well. When choosing a fruit, try a banana, pear, apple, one or two kiwi or plums, or a cup of berries or diced pineapple. While preparing dinner, cook extra servings of vegetables to save for the next day's snack, possibly with a little low-calorie dressing for a dip. Another food with real filling power but not many calories is soup. Many tomato or vegetable soups have less than 100 calories in a six- to eight-ounce serving. Dried versions that just need hot water or single-serve cans are easy to store anywhere. 


If a sweet tooth seems to drive your urge for a snack, consider a frozen fudge or fruit juice bar. A few cinnamon graham cracker squares or reduced-fat vanilla wafers are also within the low-calorie limit. But to avoid eating more than you really need, make sure to portion out a serving rather than eat directly from the package. Popcorn can be a good solution, depending on how it's prepared. Air-popped and some microwave popcorns keep calorie levels low, but most regular microwave versions contain more calories than people realize, especially if an entire three-serving bag is treated as a single portion.


For people who are trying to lose weight, it's often high-calorie snacks that keep them from reaching their healthy weight. A 200-calorie snack is low enough for many people in this situation. Foods that provide some protein, like a small bowl of cereal with milk, a "smoothie" (yogurt-fruit shake), or a handful of nuts may satisfy longer than those that are all carbohydrate (juice bars, pretzels, crackers). Portion size is vital; a "small" cereal portion is about half the size most adults eat at breakfast. 


Think of snacks as opportunities to fill in the missing nutrition that regular meals don't provide. If you frequently fall short of reaching recommended calcium levels, consider yogurt, a little low-fat cheese, or a calcium-fortified juice. Make vegetables and fruits your snacks of choice if you tend to eat less than the health experts' recommendations of five to ten servings a day. Need more fiber? A quick bowl of oatmeal, or a "trail mix" combination of whole-grain cereal and some raisins or other dried fruit would be a great choice. If you exercise late in the afternoon, you'll be able to put more into it if you're not running low on fuel. Two or three hours before your workout, choose a high-carbohydrate, low-fat snack like those suggested above and drink several glasses of water. 


What if your urge to snack is really due to stress or boredom? Give yourself the mental break you need without adding the calories you don't. Do a crossword puzzle, take a walk, or switch tasks. Try to focus on snacks as a way to fuel your body, not as a recreational break from what you're doing. 


(Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.)