Snacking can be part of any healthy diet, but it can feel impossible to find options that are nutritious and tasty AND that keep you full.
So we enlisted the help of registered dietitian Jessica Jones, co-host of Food Heaven Made Easy, to guide us through the snacks maze.
In determining what qualifies as healthy, here are her rules of thumb:
1. Aim for less than 6 grams of added sugar per serving. This is crucial, and the downfall of most snacks. Foods with lots of sugar will raise your blood sugar and that spike can be followed by cravings for more carbs and sugar, and mood swings, Jones tells BuzzFeed. “In the long run, high blood sugar can lead to weight gain, pre-diabetes, and diabetes.” Keep in mind that something innately sweet like a serving of fruit will have more than six grams of naturally occurring sugar, but the fiber in the fruit will slow the release of sugar and help minimize those spikes and crashes.
2. Pick a snack with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. A snack with more fiber is going to be more satiating and help you stay full. At minimum, your snack should have 3 grams of fiber.
3. Look for reasonable serving sizes. You’re setting yourself up for excess calories if you start munching on a bar where the serving size is a quarter of the bar, because you’re less likely to simply consume a quarter. And keep this in mind when you’re reading the nutrition label: Whatever numbers you’re seeing have to be multiplied by the number of servings the item contains if you want to eat the whole thing.
4. The less processed the better. Generally speaking, the less processed something is, the more nutritious and the lower it will be in added sugar, sodium, and other additives. The fewer ingredients you see listed on a label, the less processed the product will be.
5. Balance is best. Pick a snack with a good balance of carbs and protein, carbs and healthy fats, or protein and healthy fats — this’ll keep satiated you for a longer amount of time (e.g., cheese and crackers, or apples and peanut butter.)
Many snacks people think are “healthy” don’t actually fit these guidelines, says Jones. Here are nine common ones that you want might want to think twice about — plus her suggestions on what to snack on instead.
1. Pre-Flavored Instant Oatmeal
Packets of flavored, instant-cooking oatmeal tend to be high in sugar and made from oats that are highly processed to ensure a faster cooking time — meaning they’ll be lower in fiber and provide less satiety, and ultimately not keep you that full for long.
Healthy swap: Opt for steel-cut or rolled oats made without added flavoring, sugar, or preservatives. Both options are less processed — as they aren’t designed to cook instantly — are digested at a lower rate, and will keep you fuller longer. To add a bit of flavor, add nut butter or fresh fruit.
2. Fruit Juice
Unfortunately, fruit juice is often loaded with as much sugar as soda, and is devoid of the fiber that helps with digestion and slows down the absorption of sugar.
Healthy swap: Instead of juice, reach for a piece of fruit — it’ll have less sugar and more filling fiber to help you reach your daily recommended intake of 25 and 38 grams for women and men, respectively. “Even when it comes to fresh-squeezed orange juice, I’d rather have someone eat an orange,” says Jones.
3. Flavored Yogurt
Yogurt can be a great snack — high in protein, super portable, and a great vehicle for fruit, nuts, or whatever you like to top it with — but flavored yogurt is often quite high in added sugar, especially the low- and fat-free varieties that rely on lots of added sugar so they still taste good even with the fat removed.
Healthy swap: Stick with plain Greek yogurt and add your own fruit to the mix. It’ll have more protein, be a lot more satiating, and keep your blood sugar more stable (which goes hand-in-hand with maintaining steady energy levels and enough willpower to make better eating decisions!).
4. Granola Bars
The idea of granola is great — whole grains mixed with some fruit for flavor and nuts for healthy fats and protein. But prepackaged granola tends to be high on the flavor and low on the nutrition. Plus it’s pretty calorically dense, meaning lots of calories in a relatively small serving.
Healthy swap: Look for, or make, bars low in added sugar and additives, like Larabars, which contain nine ingredients or less and come without preservatives or artificial ingredients.
5. Sports Drinks
Most sports drinks — like Gatorade and Powerade, for example — respectively have about 34 grams and 52.5 grams of sugar per standard bottle. Outside doing really long workouts (like half marathons), most healthy adults — from anyone who’s fairly sedentary to people who exercise for general health or weight management — don’t actually need the infusion of carbs and electrolytes that sports drinks provide. And in fact, all that added sugar is just not good for your health.
Healthy swap: Use water to stay hydrated and snazz it up with citrus, cucumber, or a fruit if it’s too boring.
6. Microwave Popcorn
Store-bought popcorn options can be excessively high in sodium, with each bagcontaining more than your suggested allowance of 2,300 milligrams per day.
Healthy swap: Pop your own popcorn by placing a quarter cup of popcorn kernels in a paper bag, and microwaving. Add a little butter, salt, pepper, maybe coconut oil… whatever!
Most foods served at restaurants come with way more sugar and sodium — and are less fresh and nutritious — than things you’d make at home. Parfaits, for one, are made with yogurt and granola way sweeter than the stuff you could make at home.
8. Fat-Free or Reduced-Fat Snacks
Most fat-free or reduced-fat snacks — be it chocolate pudding, peanut butter, or cookies — have an extra helping of sugar, salt, or both, to make sure the food tastes as good without the missing ingredient.
Healthy swap: Healthy fats in moderation help you maintain a feeling of fullness, provide our bodies with stores of energy, and can improve cholesterol levels, so don’t rule these out. Instead, choose good fats like a handful of walnuts, or a tablespoon of natural peanut butter with a banana. And if you’re watching your caloric intake, stick to a smaller serving size.