Smart Snacking: 5 Tips to Help You Pick Nutritious Snacks
By Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, ACSM-CPT, JennaBraddock.com
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition-related activity.
With the recent rise in popularity of time-restricted eating and intermittent fasting, I find many people unsure about whether they should snack or not, and definitely uncertain if smart snacking could actually bring them benefit.
The interesting thing I’ve observed as a registered dietitian is that my clients complain about dips in their energy throughout their day but don’t necessarily connect it to the need to fuel with food. Parents recognize when their kids are crabby or dragging due to low energy, but for some reason as adults, this connection is not as easily made.
No matter the reason why you may not be snacking right now, I encourage you to step back from the chaos of your day and really think about how your energy ebbs and flows. When your demands are high in your day, are you fueling your body to have the energy it needs to meet that demand? I commonly find the answer is “no”.
Instead of letting snacks be an afterthought or even something you avoid, experiment with healthy snacking to see if it makes a difference in how well you function and feel in the day.
Here are 5 tips to help you be a smart snacker and pick a nutritious snack:
Tip #1: Eat snacks during the day, instead of the evening
Perhaps the most basic benefit of snacking is the most overlooked: maintaining energy levels. Eating snacks can help provide a bridge between meals and prevent the dips in energy you might be experiencing. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon are common times this can happen and a great place to start with experimenting with what works for you.
In my experience, many people skip daytime snacks and instead choose to snack in the evening, a time when their energy demands are lower. Evening snacking has been associated with less healthy eating habits and more distracted eating. Conversely, mid-morning or midday snacking has been associated with a higher fruit and vegetable intake, higher overall diet quality, and less distracted eating.1
Experiment with trying a smart snack any time during the day when you go longer than a few hours without eating. See if it makes a difference in the way you feel and perform.
Tip #2: Choose snacks that fill nutrient gaps
Instead of snacking on whatever presents, think about using snacks as opportunities to get nutrients that you, and most Americans, are lacking. The average adult gets about 24% of their total calories from snacks so it’s important to pay attention to what those are.2
According to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults 19 and up still have some work to do in meeting recommendations for a healthy diet. Specifically, nearly 90% of the US population does not eat enough vegetables (shocker, I know) but 98% are also falling short in eating whole grains. In addition, calcium, potassium, fiber, and vitamin D are all under-consumed nutrients.3
Why not use your snacks to chip away at some of these goals, not just because you know you should, but because it could make a difference in your health? Try whole grains and vegetables as a snack or try freeze-dried veggie snacks which contain a good amount of fiber and potassium.
Tip #3: Choose snacks with protein and fiber
Another byproduct of snacking between meals is greater satiety throughout the day.4 Practically speaking this means that adding in snacks means you need less food at meals to feel satisfied, a perk that could have a host of benefits.
Of all the possible nutrients available in snack foods, protein and fiber have been found to be the most satiating.4 This could potentially translate into having better energy longer and being more productive by avoiding distractions from hunger or cravings.
Keep an easy-to-grab, satisfying snack at your workstation like CLIF® Nut Butter Bar, which delivers both whole grains and 5–7g (8–10% DV) of plant protein. It’s a perfect, quick solution for a hunger-fighting snack. Another favorite quick snack is roasted edamame, which is chock-full of protein and fiber.
Tip #4: Choose snacks that you enjoy
Your perceived enjoyment of a snack is really important. Generally speaking, “indulgent snacks” are perceived as tastier and satisfying, while “nutritious snacks” are considered less pleasurable and require more self-control. Studies have found that people respond very differently to the same snack food based solely on how the snack was positioned to them. For example, in one study, when a snack was framed as “healthy”, people reported less satisfaction and greater hunger afterward compared to when it was described as a tasty treat.5
If you find that you also think this way, it might be time to work on this storyline and broaden your horizons. It can be helpful to stop seeing food as either good or bad.
There very well may be times when you would simply like to enjoy a delicious snack to break up the day, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Thinking through what you would really enjoy eating and mindfully making a selection can help you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally satisfied.
If you, like me, enjoy a crunchy, slightly sweet snack, CLIF BAR® Thins are the perfect option. They come in some of my favorite flavors. They’re also baked until crisp and contain 100 calories and 5 grams of sugar per pack, making them a perfectly portioned snack for anywhere.
Perhaps crunchy isn’t your thing and you enjoy something soft and chewy instead. For those of you raising your hand right now, CLIF BAR® Minis are for you! With 100-110 calories, these mini but mighty tasty bars are perfect when a small snack will hit the spot.
Tip #5: Limit distractions when snacking
It’s all too easy to snack while doing just about anything else. The day gets busy, I know, but I want to challenge you to try taking even just a moment to focus on your snack. This is partly so that you can execute tip #4, enjoying your snack, but also because distracted snacking seems to have consequences. Studies have found that distracted snacking tends to lead to overeating and less nutritious choices.4
Have you ever eaten something so fast or while distracted that you don’t even remember tasting it? I know I have. This could trigger overeating, not because you are truly hungry or need energy, but because you just feel short-changed by your eating experience.
Distracted eating will happen; it’s normal. You can, however, practice more mindful snacking by asking yourself some quick questions before reaching for a snack:
- Am I bored?
- Am I hungry? How hungry?
- Is my energy level dropping?
- Am I experiencing stress?
- Do I want to celebrate?
- Do I need a break?
The very act of recognizing how you feel or what’s actually going on in your head is mindfulness. It’s the first step to then choosing whether you need to snack or not and what food might best serve you at that moment.
Whether you choose to snack or not, remember that smart snacking is a tool you have to better manage your energy, mood, and your health. It’s not all-or-nothing either. You can use nutritious snacks some days and, on other days, you may not need them. It’s all about changing your mindset around snacks and experimenting with what works best for you.
- Barrington W, Beresford S. Eating Occasions, Obesity and Related Behaviors in Working Adults: Does it Matter When you Snack? Nutrients. 2009. 11:2320.
- Hess J, Jonnalagadda S, Slavin J. What is a snack, why do we snack, and how can we choose better snacks? A review of the Definitions of snacking, motivations to snack, contribution to dietary intake and recommendations for improvement. Adv Nutr. 2016. 20167:466-75.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf.
- Njike V, Smith T, Shuval O, Edshteyn K, Kalantari V. Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight. Adv Nutr. 2016. 7:866-78.
- Schlinkert C. Gillebaart M, Benjamins J, Poelman M, Ridder D. The snack that has it all: People’s associations with ideal snacks. Appetite. 2020.152:104722