If you are trying to limit calories to control your weight, you may think snacks are off limits. Those extra between-meal calories can add up, and lead to weight gain before you know it.
But eating a healthy snack can be OK, says our expert. Especially if your next meal is more than six hours away or you get hungry between meals.
Satisfying your hunger can keep you from overeating at mealtime. And controlling portions – and calories – at meals can help you maintain a healthy weight. Keeping your weight in check is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your cancer risk.
Healthy snacks can also help keep your blood sugar at a healthy level, boost energy and provide important nutrients, says Lindsey Wohlford, a wellness dietitian at MD Anderson.
Keep in mind, if you are eating snacks to boost your metabolism, Wohlford says the evidence doesn't support any weight-loss benefit from that.
"Snacking does not boost your metabolism," she says. "Calories burned by metabolizing the food consumed is the same whether the calories are consumed in three meals or more, so long as the calories are equal."
"A healthy snack is not essential for everyone, but it can be a great way to meet your calorie and nutrient needs for the day, while preventing overeating later on,” says Wohlford.
“Pairing these two macro-nutrients together will help you stay full longer and keep you energized,” she says.
If you are trying to work healthy snacks into your daily routine, here are some tips to stay on track:
Plan ahead. If you get hungry and can't stop for a meal, having a healthy snack on hand can stop you from making bad choices. Plan to keep a healthy snack or two around to tide you over.
Follow your hunger cues. Sometimes you may eat because you're bored, stressed or because the clock says it’s snack time. Eating for these reasons can cause you to take in too many calories and lead to weight gain. Listen to your body’s cues to let you know it’s truly hungry. That includes a growling stomach, headache or lack of energy. If your next meal is still several hours away, then choose a healthy snack to tide you over and prevent over-eating at mealtime.
Make good choices. Combine an unrefined carbohydrate, like fruit or whole-grain crackers, with a protein, like cheese or peanut butter. Protein will keep you full and satisfied and eating from more than one food group will give you more nutrients.
Focus on portion control. Package your own snacks into single-serving containers to avoid overeating. And choose snacks that have 200 calories or less. Foods like cheese and peanut butter are calorie dense, so a little goes a long way.
Think plant-based. Opt for snacks that include a fruit, veggie, beans, nuts, seeds or grains. It’s a great way to sneak in extra nutrients that can help reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Avoid processed snack foods. Highly processed snack foods are full of sugar, fat and sodium and low in nutrients that keep us satisfied and fuel our body. Eating these types of snacks usually prompts us to eat more. Stick with whole foods and foods with as few ingredients as possible.
Track your eating. There are plenty of apps that can help you keep track of what you are eating. This can be helpful in making sure you don't overdo it with calories. Logging what you eat can help you really know and understand what you are eating every day.
Remember, too much snacking has been shown to contribute to weight gain. Snacking has its place for certain people, but it is not essential for everyone, says Wohlford.
"If you are meeting your calorie needs without snacking and feel satisfied, you don’t need to add a snack. If you are not meeting your needs, a healthy snack once or twice a day is a great option," she says. "Balance your calorie intake and use snacks to meet those needs, not in addition."