When you’re hungry now, try one of these nutritious bites
By Rachel Albert-Matesz
You know the feeling: It’s midafternoon, you can’t concentrate, and you’re craving something sweet or starchy. You’re sorely tempted to down a doughnut, muffin, or bottle of soda, but if you do, two hours later you’re ravenous again. What’s going on, and what can you do about it?
Your body sends urgent signals for food—any food—to boost its flagging blood sugar levels. But if you eat a simple-carbohydrate snack, “the body usually pours out so much insulin that blood sugar levels drop too low,” says Melissa Diane Smith, coauthor of Syndrome X (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). “This results in cravings for more quick-fix carbs to bring up lagging blood sugar, and the whole cycle starts all over again.”
Most processed snacks pack a lot of calories. According to the American Dietetic Association, more than 75 percent of us eat at least one snack per day, and snacks provide a quarter of our daily calories, leading some experts to blame snacks for America’s obesity problem.
Typically, “the snacks that are quickest to grab are often the least healthy—unless you take the time to revise old habits,” says Judy Stone, CN, MSW, author of Take Two Apples and Call Me in the Morning (Hara Publishing, 2002). Having the right kind of snacks on hand will help you stave off hunger as well as combat weight gain and improve long-term health.
Eat small meals
In lieu of quick-hit convenience foods, today’s nutritionists advise balanced mini-meals to stimulate metabolism and lighten the load on your digestive system. “Appropriate snacks and smaller meals provide a steady supply of energy and amino acids to keep the brain’s neurochemistry stable,” says Stone.
Research supports the case for eating smaller meals at more frequent intervals, especially for older women seeking to maintain a healthy weight. In a 1997 study, scientists compared the fat-burning ability of women in their 60s with that of women in their 20s. They found that older women burned the same amount of fat as younger women as long as meals contained 250 to 500 calories; but when both groups ate 1,000-calorie meals, the seniors’ fat-burning ability declined significantly (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1997, vol. 66, no. 4).
Find protein sources
To avoid excess calories and keep blood sugar steady, a snack or small meal should be composed of unrefined, minimally processed, nutrient-rich ingredients. Experts advise a mix of healthy protein, good fats (preferably monounsaturated or omega-3s), and complex carbohydrates for sustained energy. Loren Cordain, PhD, author of The Paleo Diet (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), emphasizes high-protein snacks because protein boosts metabolism three times more than carbohydrates or fats. “A good ‘protein bar’ is a lean, 3-ounce chicken breast without the skin, or a piece of natural, grass-fed beef or buffalo jerky,” he says. “A cold piece of broiled salmon or cold boiled shrimp also works quite well.”
Other easy protein picks include hard-boiled omega-3 eggs; vanilla whey protein powder mixed into plain yogurt; a small scoop of egg, tuna, or turkey salad; smoked tofu; or a handful of nuts or low-fat string cheese. However, “be aware that calorie-dense foods like cheese or nuts usually add more calories with less volume, making it easy to exceed your calorie budget,” says Stone.
Try new things
To upgrade your grazing habits, it’s important to be open to new ideas for snacks. “Most people have to break out of the idea that snacks are cookies or chips and dip, and their health will be a lot better when they do,” says Smith. Instead, consider last night’s leftovers: Chinese stir-fry, fajitas, or a lightly dressed dinner salad with shredded cheese or toasted pecans all fit the smart-snack criteria.
Fresh vegetables make great snacks because, calorie for calorie, they provide even more nutrients and fiber than whole grains. They also add crunch and a rainbow of eye-catching colors. Stock your fridge with clear containers of washed and dried grape or cherry tomatoes; sliced sweet bell peppers, carrots, and celery sticks; peeled, sliced jicama sticks splashed with lime juice; and leftover cooked broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus. Whip up small tubs of guacamole, nut butters, or yogurt dip to make these ready-to-eat snacks even more appealing.
By keeping nutrient-rich, quick snacks in your pantry and fridge, your midafternoon noshing will quickly change in nature. Once you’ve figured out the trick of preparing healthy foods in advance, you’ve solved most of the impulse-snack problem, says Smith. “It’s one of the secret ingredients needed for snacking in a health-promoting way.”
Rachel Albert-Matesz is a freelance food and health writer, healthy cooking coach, and personal chef in Phoenix. She is coauthor of The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004).