Monday, June 4, 2007

Smart Snacking

Snacking can be a dietary disadvantage; or a nutritional edge. Here's how to make it work in your favor.

Many nutrition experts -- including Cooking Light -- often recommend munching between meals to maintain your energy and prevent you from devouring too much at lunch or dinner. But snacking could thwart your ability to manage the size of your middle--unless, that is, you learn to snack smart.

"Nutrition experts are not wrong about the healthfulness of snacking, but perhaps we haven't been clear that you should have a snack only when your stomach wants it," states Connie Roberts, R.D., a nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

If you're one of those folks who visit the vending machine, pantry, or convenience store for reasons other than hunger, work on identifying why. Are you bored? Join a book group or call a friend. Tense? Take a lavender bath. Mad? Go out to the driving range and see how far you can hit your boss, er, ball. "Distract yourself in healthy ways until they become a habit," suggests Mike Bowers, Psy.D., chief clinical psychologist at the University of Colorado's Weight Management Center in Denver.

Once you learn to snack only when your stomach calls, chances are you will eat less at subsequent meals, Roberts adds. Why? She explains that it takes the food you eat about 20 minutes to start making a dent in your hunger. If you begin a meal ravenous, you may eat so quickly that you've polished off a second helping before you feel even the slightest bit full. In this case, a modest pre meal snack could keep you from stuffing yourself. Which brings us to this question: When your stomach sounds like a symphony, what should you snack on?

Use the following advice to make healthy snack selections.

Check out the calories. Opt for 50-or 100-calorie snacks if your next meal is within an hour or two, 150 to 200 if it's going to be longer than that. "It'll be just enough to keep you satisfied," Roberts explains.

Think outside the bag. Sure, it's easy to grab a bag of chips (Americans ate 11 million pounds of them on Super Bowl Sunday alone). "But look beyond the usual choices--pretzels, popcorn, and chips; and focus on fruits, vegetables, and dairy products," says Leslie Bonci, R.D., a Pittsburgh based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "You probably don't get too few potato chips in your diet, but chances are you're coming up short on these other foods."

Focus on fiber and protein. A snack containing at least a little protein will keep you fuller longer. Snacks that are high in fiber are also more filling than low-fiber snacks. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are fiber-rich; low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, and lean meat are packed with protein. Whenever you can, combine the two--spread a little peanut butter on your banana, or top your whole-wheat crackers with tuna salad or hummus.

Don't forsake your favorites. Sweet snacks are unlikely to contain enough protein or fiber to fill you up until mealtime. But you needn't--and shouldn't--banish them completely. "You just can't say, 'I'll never eat another Oreo again.' It's a surefire way to devour the whole bag," Bowers says. You may be able to pair your snack-of-choice with a protein- or fiber-rich food--Oreos and skim milk, for instance. If it's not that easy, build small portions of your favorite snack foods--no matter how vitamin-vacant they are--into your regular meals when you're hungry. "Plan to have two Oreos with your lunch on Wednesdays or for dessert on Friday," Bowers suggests.

Avoid a snack-food rut. "Have different kinds of snacks every day so you get a variety of nutrients," Bonci advises.