Snacks get a bad rap, because we think of them as “extras” and we think of snack time as a time to eat something just to fill the stomach or satisfy a craving. What if there were some easy ways to determine a healthy snack so they could be added to your grocery cart with a purpose in mind?
Before we get to the important criteria for “healthy,” let's free your mind of calories for a minute. Yes, calories are not one of the criteria! The truth is, if you follow the guidelines below, you are either going to pick a snack that doesn't have a lot of calories anyway, or you will choose a snack that is going to satisfy you and provide a lot of nutrients. Your body utilizes those nutrient-rich calories in an efficient way, providing a boost to your metabolism and overall energy level.
Jill Koegel is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer based in Omaha. She blogs every Wednesday. Read more from Jill.
So, what are the criteria for a healthy snack? I am prioritizing this list, so it is in order of how I, as a registered dietitian and fitness trainer, would select a snack by its label:
A realistic serving size. If a bag of chips says seven chips per serving, can you stick to that? Make sure the answer is yes! Then, measure your snack food at least once, to make sure you know what a serving looks like.
Ingredients you can pronounce. Choosing whole ingredients, less additives, and foods with readily available nutrients are very important criteria! Examples of these are snacks with sprouted whole grains, low sodium foods and snacks without ingredients like hydrogenated oils and preservatives.
Less than 3 grams of saturated fat. Most of the time, saturated fat indicates poor nutrient value.
Protein. At least 3 grams per serving. This assures that either the food is whole grain, or it is providing some other source of protein that also has vitamins and minerals. Vitamins, minerals, and protein are helpful in boosting metabolism and snack time satisfaction!
Low sugar. I tell my kids to find another snack if the label has more than 9 grams of sugar. Double-digit sugars are sure to provide a quick sugar rush and a crash later. There are a few exceptions, such as with certain dairy and fruit products, but in general, lower sugar is better. Another way to read a label quickly is to avoid sugar as the first or second ingredient, but you have to know all of the technical words for sugar. There are a lot of them!
There are many healthy options when choosing a snack, and most of the time I would advocate for eating fresh, unpackaged foods.However, there are packaged snacks that can be healthy, too. Just be critical of the ingredients label.
One snack example that meets the “healthy criteria” is made by the Way Better Snack Company. They turn the traditional fatty chip into a healthy snack that meets all of the above guidelines. My recent favorites are the sprouted sweet potato and pumpkin varieties, available at Walmart, Costco and Whole Foods.