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Considering how much Americans spend on snack foods each year (more than $22 billion in 2002!), it's no wonder between-meal eating is often blamed for the growing obesity epidemic. But researchers are now turning up evidence that grazing, when done properly, may actually be good for you. "Healthy snacking can help control your appetite and your weight," says Cynthia Sass, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's also a great way to fit in nutrient-rich foods and regulate mood."
Here, 13 snacking strategies that are guaranteed to improve your health, boost your energy, and help you lose pounds or maintain your weight.For Better Health
Divvy up your daily calories. A study in the British Medical Journal showed that people who consumed several snacks in addition to their daily meals had appreciably lower cholesterol levels than those who ate less often. Researchers speculate that frequent eating may steady insulin levels; this results in lower cholesterol production when your body metabolizes food. The key, however, is to bump up the number of meals you eat -- not to increase your total calorie intake. Divide what you already eat into smaller, more frequent meals, says study author Kay-Tee Khaw, MD. For example, have your banana as a midmorning snack rather than slicing it onto your breakfast cereal; eat half of your tuna sandwich at lunch and the other half later in the afternoon.
Use snacks to bridge nutritional gaps. If you suspect that your meals are deficient in protein or essential vitamins and minerals, use your snacks to pick up the slack. "An eight-ounce serving of yogurt or glass of skim milk will help you meet your protein and calcium requirements for the day," says Sass.
Fortified cereals are great sources of folate and iron: Simply portion out a serving in a plastic bag and toss it in your tote. Or reach for fresh fruit and raw veggies, which deliver a wealth of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber.
Nuts are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and essential nutrients including magnesium, potassium and folate. Studies have linked frequent consumption of nuts with heart health and -- despite their high calorie and fat content -- weight control. Stick to a one-ounce serving (approximately 160 calories): That's roughly 28 peanuts, 23 almonds, or 49 pistachios.
Cut out crash-and-burn bites. If you're looking for foods to power you through workouts and long hours on the job, skip starchy, low-fiber fixes (cookies, pretzels, and so on). "For longer-lasting energy, eat a mix of protein, carbs, and fat, which don't pass through the digestive system as quickly," says Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports medicine in the nutrition program at the University of Pittsburgh. Some suggestions: trail mix (made with nuts, cereal, and dried fruit), peanut butter on rye crisps, or a whole wheat pita topped with low-fat cheese.
Eat an hour before you exercise. Running on empty doesn't work -- just ask your car! Have a snack that's roughly two-thirds carbohydrates and one-third equal amounts of protein and fat. Let the intensity of your workout determine the portion size. "If you're doing 45 minutes of cardio plus 20 minutes of weights, you'll expend 500 calories or more," says Bonci. "A 100-calorie yogurt won't cut it; aim for 250 to 300 calories." Pre-workout snacks that fit the profile: a six-inch flour or corn tortilla spread with one tablespoon each of peanut butter and jelly plus a piece of fruit, or half a yogurt smoothie (like Yoplait Nouriche or Dannon Frusion) and a packet of instant oatmeal.
Eat within 20 minutes post-workout. Exercise draws energy from the glycogen that's stored in the muscles and liver. "You'll need to consume about 200 calories to replenish those stores," says Bonci. Choose a snack containing both carbohydrates and protein, such as a glass of low-fat chocolate milk and an apple, or half of a turkey sandwich.
Choose high-satiety snacks. Swap calorie-dense crackers and cookies for foods with fewer calories per gram. "That way you can eat larger portions, which will take up more space in your stomach and make you feel fuller," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, author of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan (HarperTorch, 2003). Seek out snacks that are full of water and fiber, like raw vegetables with a few tablespoons of hummus, broth-based soups, and fruits like oranges, apples, and pears.
Retrain your brain. The bigger a snack serving looks, the fuller you're likely to feel after eating it. "It's easy to trick your senses into believing you've had more," says Rolls, who suggests "fluffy" foods like a foamy latte or well-blended low-calorie smoothie (mix one cup of skim milk with one-half cup of canned pineapple and one-half teaspoon of coconut extract). Foods that have irregular shapes -- air-popped popcorn, salads, and high-fiber cereals -- also give you the impression that you're getting more because they don't pack down neatly in a bowl.
Pump up the protein. Calorie for calorie, protein is a lot more satisfying than carbohydrates alone. "It isn't broken down as quickly as carbs, so it holds you over longer," says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. Limit saturated fat by opting for lean protein sources: low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, sliced deli turkey. To calculate the number of grams you need each day, multiply your body weight by 0.4.
Fight fat with dairy. Research shows that dieters who ate three yogurt servings a day (1,100 milligrams of calcium) for 12 weeks lost 22 percent more weight and 61 percent more fat than those who got 500 milligrams of the mineral. "Compounds in dairy foods work with calcium to increase enzymes that stimulate fat breakdown and decrease enzymes that cause fat production," explains Michael Zemel, PhD, author of The Calcium Key (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Snacks such as low-fat yogurt, skim milk, and string cheese will help you meet the daily requirement of 1,000 milligrams.
Budget your snacks. To figure out how many calories you can "spend" on between-meal bites, multiply your weight by 14 (if you work out several times a week). Then subtract the number of calories consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; what's left is your snack allowance for the day. Another option is to follow the 100-calorie-per-hour rule, says Sass. "In other words, a 400-calorie lunch should last you four hours." If you ate that lunch at noon, you'll be ready to nosh again at four. If dinner is scheduled for six, try not to exceed 200 calories for that snack.
Practice portion control. Even foods considered "healthy" can cause you to gain weight. Read the labels to compare prepackaged snacks (one muffin may have 170 calories, another 400). Pick up single-serving packs -- or buy in bulk and portion snacks out yourself (measure or weigh for the most accurate calorie count).
Fill up on fiber. Increasing fiber intake seems to be a largely untapped tactic for appetite and weight control. Most Americans consume 15 grams a day (the daily recommendation is at least 25). Boost your fiber intake by eating apples, raw veggies, popcorn, nuts, and dry whole-grain cereals. (We like Puffins by Barbara's Bakery, which contains six grams per three-quarter-cup serving, and Kashi Good Friends, with eight grams per three-quarters of a cup.)