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Smart snacking: Satisfy your hunger with healthy choices

It’s 4 p.m. and you have an urge to nibble. Go ahead! You have permission to snack. Gone are the days of getting by on three squares. Many nutrition experts recommend that adults eat three meals and up to three snacks a day, depending on their activity level.

Why snack? Eating small portions of good-for-you foods can help you reduce or maintain your weight and get the nutrients your body needs. Plus, spreading your calories over the day limits blood sugar swings, which helps control hunger and benefits people with diabetes or insulin resistance.

Bridging the between—meal gap with smart food choices allows you to:

  • avoid overeating at your next meal—a light bite mid-morning helps you forgo chips and cookies at lunch
  • avoid or lessen cravings—a healthy nosh at 3 p.m. can beat that 4 p.m. desire for sweets
  • keep your energy up—well-timed snacks prevent fatigue that results from blood sugar dips
  • keep your mind alert—steady blood sugar levels help you stay focused
  • save money—a satisfying, well-timed snack helps you avoid unplanned visits to the vending machine, convenience store or fast-food restaurant

Facts about snacks

But snacking can be a two-edged sword. Snacks can put you over your daily calorie limit, causing weight gain. You can also wind up filling your body with poor food choices. A donut, for example, may give you a short-lived energy pickup but ultimately leave you feeling drained.

You can snack smartly by:

  • Planning ahead. Prepare healthy snacks and keep them where you need them-at home, at work, in your car or in your gym bag.
  • Eating mindfully. Take a break from what you’re doing to enjoy your snack. Avoid dipping into the chips while you’re watching TV, surfing the Internet or doing chores when you may not be paying full attention to the amount of food you’re eating.

Read on to learn about common snack mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake: Eating what you crave. Grabbing a chocolate bar or a handful of cookies may net you a few hundred calories, extra fat and sugar and crank up your desire for more sweets.

Better way: Fill your nutrient needs. Use snacks to get the vegetables, fruits, dairy or whole grains that protect your body from disease and help it run efficiently.

Try: Raw carrots or red-pepper strips dipped in hummus, string cheese with pizza sauce or fruit with a slice of cheddar.

Mistake: Thinking calories don’t count. Smaller or sedentary people can’t eat the same number of calories that larger or more active people can.

Better way: Snack within your daily calorie budget. Big meals plus big snacks can lead to a big waistline. Downsize meals a bit so you can enjoy your snacks.

Try: An apple and a spoonful of peanut butter or a small granola bar. If you’re struggling to lose weight or maintain it, consult with a dietitian or nutritionist to learn how many calories you need a day or consider joining a weight-loss group that will help you determine the number of servings you should eat each day.

Mistake: Snacking on protein to avoid gaining weight. Snacking on a bunless cheeseburger in addition to consuming your normal fare will load your body with calories and saturated fat.

Better way: Go for a healthier blend of nutrients your body needs.

Try: A few cups of air-popped popcorn with some vegetable juice or tomato juice spiked with Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce and lemon juice-you’ll get a serving of whole grains plus vitamin C and lycopene, a cancer-fighting antioxidant.

Mistake: Thinking natural or organic snacks always make good snack choices. Snacks labeled natural or organic, such as granola bars, chips or bakery goods, may still be loaded with sodium, sugars and empty calories plus few, if any, nutrients.

Better way: Check nutrition labels to see what you’re getting.

Try: A handful of nuts with a few dried apricots or nachos made from baked tortilla chips, salsa, canned black beans and a sprinkle of shredded low-fat cheese.

Mistake: Never letting yourself indulge. Sometimes raw carrots out of a sandwich bag just don’t satisfy.

Better way: Plan ahead to have an occasional indulgence. Keeping calories in mind, budget in a small treat. Think about what you crave the most-saltiness, sweetness, crunch-and take the time to savor it.

Try: A cup of low-fat chocolate ice cream, a single-serving bag of baked potato chips with low-fat dip or a thin slice of veggie-topped pizza.

Mistake: Not eating after dinner. If late-night TV or a good book usually keeps you up past midnight, you may be asking for trouble if your last meal was at 6 p.m.

Better way: Allot some of your daily calories for a planned treat around 9 p.m.-otherwise, you may surrender to the chocolate-chip ice cream by 11.

Try: A small bowl of cereal and milk, low-fat yogurt and berries or two whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese.

Find what works for you

Beware of store-bought cookie or cracker snack packs, which often contain hydrogenated oils or high-fructose corn syrup. Make your own snack packs using more healthful food choices like low-salt pretzels, crunchy whole-grain cereal and a few chocolate chips. Tack on your refrigerator a list of snack options, working with food choices that suit you. For example, frozen grapes may leave you feeling deprived, while a mug of low-sodium soup dusted with Parmesan cheese may satisfy you. Once you tune into your own taste buds, you may find losing or maintaining your weight is easier than ever.