8 Rules for a Perfect Snack

©. Brent Hofacker

From nutrients and size to timing, here's how to get the most out of the glorious act of snacking.

Are you a snacker? I am, and I’ve got it bad. But I know I’m not alone. According to national data, Americans eat 5.6 times a day – compared to 3.9 times per day in the late 1970s. Now that might be OK if those snacks were healthy ones, but alas. The percentage of total calories from snacks doubled from 12 to 24 percent in that time period – up to 500 calories. That fruit intake has stayed the same and vegetable intake has declined suggests that we are missing a good opportunity as far as snacks are concerned.

Christy Brissette, a dietician and nutrition writer, notes in The Washington Post that snacking does not have to be a bad thing. “In healthy, normal-weight people, snacking seems to help them meet their daily energy needs and even helps incorporate more nutrients into their day,” she explains. “In contrast, obese children and adults tend to snack on foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. It is not surprising that what you choose to snack on matters.”

Brisette goes on to break down the anatomy of a perfect snack for The Post. In my writing about nutrition for the books True Food and Build Your Running Body, I also sing the praise of good snacks – along with Brisette's advice, here’s what I’ve concluded are the things to remember.

1. Include the three snack star nutrients

Contrary to popular practice, the three key nutrients for the ideal snack are not sugar, salt and fat. Ok, you can have fat, and should have fat in fact, but make sure it’s a healthy fat – think nuts, avocado/guacamole, hummus, olives, etc. Also try to include protein and fiber. This dream trio will help to keep you full and stabilize blood sugar levels, meaning no energy crashes later.

2. Consider your protein

Protein bars are good in an emergency, and who hasn’t had an I-need-a-snack-right-now emergency? Look for ones that are made of whole foods and minimally processed. But the bulk of your protein should come from natural sources. Brissete recommends: “A handful of nuts or seeds, natural nut butter, roasted chickpeas, edamame, Greek or Icelandic yogurt, or some pre-portioned cheese. These foods naturally contain fats, and the plant-based options contain some fiber so you will be satisfied longer.”

3. Aim for whole foods

I know, I know ... a protein bar touting words like “brownie” and “cookie dough” can be a vexingly tempting thing. Even though the healthier packaged snacks may be comprised of good ingredients, all too often these commercially produced snacks come with added sugars, sodium, and other unnecessary ingredients. Try to make the bulk of your snack produce – which is nutrient-rich and will can fulfill your daily fruit and vegetable requirement.

4. Don’t fear smart starches and good carbs

We live in a time when people fear the carbs. But good carbs are good. The body enjoys carbs to, you know, keep it running! In writing about starch, Brisette recommends “keeping the fiber high by opting for whole-grain options or crackers made from seeds, beans or lentils.” The same applies to carbs, opt for complex ones rather than refined ones.

5. Eat every three or four hours

This is the common advice, which is intended to help stabilize blood sugar levels and to keep you from getting too hungry. And beware of the 3:00 pm snack! The afternoon slump is often tackled with caffeine and something sweet – which promises a hard crash soon after. Instead, aim for something other than a cookie or its friends.

6. Watch the portion size

Remember, this is a snack, not a meal. Brisette says that the average snack should be between 200 to 300 calories – very active people may need up to 500 calories. Try to keep the size to one serving. “For fruit, a serving is about the size of your fist,” Brisette writes. “Keep your portion of higher calorie foods such as nuts, seeds or trail mix to a small handful and nut butter to about the size of your thumb.”

7. Snack mindfully

For those of us sitting in front of a computer, the mindless snack is a blessing and a curse. It is a remarkable boredom alleviator, but it can also lead to overeating since you are likely not paying attention to whether or not you are full yet! Writing from experience here. Like all eating, it is best to snack without distractions – computers, phones, TVs, even books.

8. Make it taste good!

While the main purpose of a snack is to fuel the body, let's face it, gustatory pleasure is a big part of snacking too. If you dedicate yourself to eating healthy snacks that don't taste great, it could potentially backfire when you run into something like cookies. So be sure you have a repertory of snacks that you actually enjoy. For me that looks like apples and almond butter, celery and peanut butter with raisins, guacamole and endive leaves, raw almonds and raspberries, pears and parmesan cheese, olives and marinated mushrooms ... all things that taste delicious, are fun to eat, and make my body happy. What more could you ask from a snack?