Inside: Healthy snacking tips are game-changers, whether you want to thwart hunger between meals, or you’re choosing snacks instead of meals at times.
Are snacks replacing meals? One report estimates that snacking now makes up half of all eating occasions. What does this snacking trend mean for how eating habits support health and vitality?
Does this “snackification” of eating habits stem from conflicting and extended work and family activity schedules? Or is it because of more people living alone or people’s decreased desire for daily cooking?
Whatever is behind this snacking trend, it has become important to consider in strategies for healthy eating. And for health professionals, it’s clear that asking people only about breakfast, lunch and dinner can miss important details.
Snacks Instead of Meals?
A growing proportion of eating occasions are snacks, a growing trend reported by according to The Hartman Group’s Eating Occasions Compass report. This may reflect snacking several times a day in addition to typical meals. But for some people, snacks are replacing one or more traditional meals.
Either way, that means that when it comes to how eating habits affect health and vitality, we can’t ignore snacks. A national study of U.S. eating habits concluded that 22% of adults’ total calorie consumption comes from snacks. And while snacks provide more than a third of sugar consumed.
- For most U.S. adults, snacks are an add-on, not a replacement for meals, studies like this suggest. Snacks can be a tool to sustain energy or keep hunger in check between meals. Snacks also provide an opportunity to “fill the gaps” by providing healthful foods that are low in your usual meals. Unfortunately, the data suggest that snacks simply just provide extra calories more often than they boost healthful plant-focused eating.
- For a growing number of people, snacks are replacing one or more meals. Some are rushing to work. Others skip lunch in favor of work or a work-out. And others are hustling to evening activities for themselves or their children.
- Some people choose “grazing” instead of eating meals hoping that it will “boost metabolism” and enhance weight loss. But the research linking this kind of eating pattern to lower weight comes mainly from cross-sectional studies. This type of study can’t establish that grazing is why someone is lean. Actually, the effects of eating frequency on weight are not clear-cut. In fact, people who snack more often tend to gain more weight in some studies that follow people over time. One important influence seems to be the choice of snack foods.
Challenges for Healthy Eating
What You Choose for Snacks
Calories, Added Sugars and Sodium are concentrated in many packaged “snack foods”. If these choices are your typical snack, even small handfuls or mini-packs add up when scattered throughout the day. And that can gradually lead to weight gain and raise your risk of heart disease. On a more immediate level, the energy boost you get may be short-lived.
Nutritional gaps remain unfilled when you choose snack foods based only on habit and what’s at hand. For many adults, foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and dairy foods (or non-dairy alternative sources of calcium) supply “shortfall nutrients” that are often below recommended levels. In addition, many people fall short on fish consumption recommended for heart and brain health.
Packaging waste may not be a direct health issue, but it is an issue for the health of our planet. Foods and beverages play a large role in packaging waste, and snack choices can be key contributors. Choices that are healthier for you could also be healthier for the planet.
How You Snack
Aimless, Mindless, or Mindful? Aimless snacking is estimated to account for 20% of snacks, according to a report from The Hartman Group. That’s eating that’s driven by an awareness of the availability of food, rather than any particular physical, emotional, social or cultural desire. Other snacking can be a response to boredom, stress or other needs. If the cue prompting a snack is completely unrelated to nutritional needs or hunger, focus on what else can meet those needs, instead of a “better” snack.
What happens to family meals? If more snacking means fewer family meals, that’s a concern. Studies show that shared meals tend to be more nutritious and to contribute to an overall more healthful eating pattern. For those raising children, family meals contribute to better emotional health, behavior choices and family communication.Some snacks fall between meals. They have long been built in to cultural eating habits in countries with an extended time between lunch and dinner. Now a growing trend involves snacks replacing some meals. In either case, whether snacks support health or work against it depends on the choices you make.Click To Tweet
Healthy Snacking Tips
Heart-Healthy Snacks to Help Fill Gaps
To use snacking as a chance to help fill gaps between your usual eating habits and eating patterns that promote optimal health, change your mindset about what defines a “snack food”. For foods that tend to run short in your diet, explore choices that provide flavor you enjoy and convenience that fits your lifestyle. Some snacks may need to be portable, but surveys show that much of our snacking actually occurs right at home.
Amp Up Vegetables
Many people run low on vegetables compared to amounts in healthful eating patterns.
Keep a couple days’ chopped vegetables on hand – either chopping extra as you prep dinner, or as pick-up items at a salad bar. They can be delicious alone. Yet if you struggle to enjoy raw veggies, pairing them with a dip can turn them into a treat you love.
Healthy snacking tip: While packaged ranch dressing may be the familiar go-to, have fun experimenting with other options that don’t raise your day’s tally of sodium and saturated fat as much. Hummus can be a great choice, but don’t stop there.
- Everything White Bean Dip incorporates the flavors of the popular “everything” bagels into a dip created by registered dietitian nutritionist Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD. I love that it helps fill not only the veggie gap, but also the gap many people have in how seldom they eat pulses (like dried beans and lentils) compared to recommended amounts. I also love that this includes a delicious option for those of us who don’t always have a jar of tahini at the ready.
- Tomato Pesto Hummus is another easy and delicious bean dip recipe developed by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN.
- 1 Minute Tuscan White Bean & Sun-Dried Tomato Dip, created by Anne Danahy, RDN, is another bean dip to try.
- Southwestern Greek Yogurt Dip was developed by another colleague, Amy Gorin, RDN. It’s a great example of how plain (unsweetened) Greek yogurt can be a thick and creamy base for creating dips by combining it with whatever ingredients you have on hand.
Savor Some Fruit
For a sweet pick-me-up without the roller coaster effects on your blood sugar and energy, fruit is a great choice. And it’s so much more filling than comparable calories from most sweets.
Healthy snacking tip: Peanut butter spread on apple or pear slices is a classic quick and yummy snack.
- Peanut Butter Yogurt Banana Dip is perfect for dipping apple or pear slices, as well as for celery sticks and other raw vegetables. Love this fun idea from Liz Weiss, MS, RDN.
Go Nuts for a Heart-Healthy Snack
For a super-portable snack with fiber, protein and healthy fat, it’s hard to beat nuts. If you’ve been afraid that nuts would promote weight gain, think again. Multiple studies show that people who consume more nuts tend to gain slightly less weight each year than people who rarely eat them. Use common sense, of course. — Don’t let the “health halo” of all the nutrients in nuts convince you that sitting down with a jar or can of nuts is a smart idea. Instead, pour a modest handful (about ¼ cup) into a small dish.
Healthy snacking tip: You can find some nuts that are flavored (with Tamari or cocoa powder, for example) for extra flavor. And often these contain only small amounts of added sugar or sodium, unlike snack foods such as candy, cookies or chips (check the label). Or save money — simply toast plain nuts in the oven or toaster over on a cookie pan (5-10 minutes at 350 degrees) and store to use as desired. You can season them in many ways, such as this recipe from California Walnuts.
Re-Energize with Yogurt
Either a dairy- or soy-based yogurt offers the chance for a snack with protein that can help stave off hunger pangs before your next meal. Note: although yogurts made from coconut, oatmeal, pea protein and nut milks (almond milk, cashew milk and others) may contain live active cultures like traditional yogurt, protein content is often about half that of dairy or soy yogurts.
Healthy snacking tip: Despite their health halo, “fruit-flavored” yogurts do not provide the fiber or nutrients of a serving of fruit. What they do have is added sugar — a small container has as much as if you’d crumbled a couple sandwich cookies into plain yogurt. Save money by getting a large container of plain yogurt (regular or Greek style as you prefer). Spoon a serving into a cereal bowl and top with a full serving of your choice of fruit. Sprinkle with a dash of cinnamon for a sweet flavor without added sugar.
Plant-Based Snacks Instead of Meals
If you want snacking to replace a meal, look for choices that can sustain hunger and energy, rather than setting you up on a roller coaster that leaves you functioning far from your best, or coming back for food so many times that you outpace the calorie level that supports a healthy weight.
For many people, the snack-instead-of-a-meal trend is not because they’re on the run. They simply want choices that can be pulled together from food on hand that requires as little preparation as possible.
If that sounds familiar, it doesn’t mean you need to give up on healthy eating.
Strategy #1: Creatively re-purpose leftovers. Whether you intentionally make extra amounts once or twice a week to have food for other meals, or you’re saving time and money by reducing food waste, leftovers offer a fabulous “night off” from making a meal.
- Roasting vegetables is a wonderful way to bring out their flavor, and making enough to use in different ways throughout the week is a strategy recommended by my colleague Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE. Check tip #5 on her list of Easy Ways to Eat More Vegetables.
- Leftover chicken can be combined with black beans and raw or leftover cooked vegetables and rolled up in a lettuce leaf or whole grain tortilla. For details on this easy way to combine lean protein with fiber- and nutrient-rich ingredients, check this post from Jennifer Hunt, RDN.
- Most Americans don’t eat recommended amounts of fish. Did you know that if you bake, microwave or sauté fish one night, you can safely keep any extra for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator? That means you need only cook it once to meet the recommended twice a week goal! Combine leftover fish with whatever veggies you have on hand to make fish tacos, add it to pasta, or use it to turn a salad into a main dish.
Strategy #2: Keep a stash of quick-fix healthy foods. If you think that all “convenience” foods are the same, think again. Stock your cabinets and freezer with favorites you can pull together quickly.
- Canned tuna adds flavor and nutrition to this Basil & Olive Oil Flatbread, ready in 15 minutes.
- Canned black beans and frozen corn can combine with whatever fresh or frozen vegetables you have on hand in a wide range of dishes. This recipe for salsa suggests serving it with whole grain tortilla chips. (For less sodium, make your own chips by using a pizza cutter to slice up fresh tortillas, sprinkle with seasonings and toast in the oven.) Try this salsa as a topping for a bed of salad greens, too. And if it’s a snack that’s replacing a meal, if you aren’t including some other source of protein, add in a little grated cheese, canned tuna or leftover fish or chicken.
- Canned chickpeas are another staple that’s never missing from my pantry. Easy Mediterranean Artichoke Chickpea Bake is a winner. It’s an example of why I recommend always cooking a double amount of whole grains — you have the extra available to drastically cut cooking time for another meal. Although Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, created this using the ancient whole grain spelt, you can make it with other whole grains, too. Try quinoa, farro, sorghum or brown rice.
- Spinach and Chickpea Curry showcases chickpeas in a dish with a whole different flavor profile. Check the notes that Brittany Poulson, RDN, CDE, provides for adapting the dish as needed.
- Yet another chickpea option: Pantry Peanut Butter Chickpea Soup. Its creator, Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, uses brown rice. Have fun experimenting with other whole grains you have handy, too.
- Lentils are another food I always have on hand. Try them in Lentil Sloppy Joes, created by Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE.
- Mediterranean Salmon Salad with Artichokes, White Beans & Lemon Dressing is a recipe by Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN. This delicious main dish comes together in just 20 minutes.
Strategy #3: Think beyond “snack foods” when you want finger foods. That cozy, casual feeling of eating without silverware doesn’t have to mean you’re limited to packaged snack foods.
- Roasted chickpeas can be a delicious and fun way to get the fiber and nutrients of pulses. My colleague Amy Gorin, RDN, explains easy ways to make healthy roasted chickpeas in 5 different flavor options. You may also want to sample some of the many packaged roasted chickpeas. But check Nutrition Facts panels as you choose – all are better than potato chips or cookies as sources of fiber and protein, but brands differ in sodium, added sugar and added fats.
- Edamame (soy beans) are another great choice that supply plant-based protein and healthy fats. Keep frozen ones on hand to steam or heat in the microwave for a few minutes, and season to taste.
- Nachos can be a healthful choice, too, if you choose the right ingredients. These Mediterranean Nachos, created by USA Pulses, can be ready in 15 minutes.
- And for a different take on nachos: Sweet Potato Nachos by Judy Barbe, RDN.
Bottom Line on Healthy Snacking Tips:
Well-chosen snacks can help maintain energy and concentration, and help fill nutritional gaps not met by your meals. However, despite headline hype, they are not a magic answer for a healthy weight. If you randomly choose snacks without considering how they fit with the rest of your eating choices, or consume them mindlessly unaware of amounts you’re consuming, snacking can lead to unhealthy weight gain. So follow the tips here, whether you’re snacking to stave off hunger between meals or to replace some meals. Heart-healthy plant-focused snacks can be easy and delicious.
As you know from previous research updates here, I consider learning to include pulses like dried beans and lentils more often a step that can pay off in many ways for most of us. Fortunately, whether your eating style is more likely to include them as slow-cooked chili and soup or quick-fix and snack-style choices, there are many delicious options to explore. If you need ideas, USA Pulses Half-Cup Habit program is worth checking out.
As Snackification in Food Culture Becomes More Routine, Traditional Mealtimes Get Redefined. The Hartman Group Newsletter. February 16, 2016.
Hess JM, Jonnalagadda SS, Slavin JL. What Is a Snack, Why Do We Snack, and How Can We Choose Better Snacks? A Review of the Definitions of Snacking, Motivations to Snack, Contributions to Dietary Intake, and Recommendations for Improvement. Advances in Nutrition. 2016;7(3):466-475.
Liu X, Li Y, Guasch-Ferré M, et al. Changes in nut consumption influence long-term weight change in US men and women. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2019;2:doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2019-000034
Rimm EB, Appel LJ, Chiuve SE, et al. Seafood Long-Chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2018 Jul 3;138(1):e35-e47. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000574.
St-Onge MP, Ard J, Baskin ML, et al. Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017;135:e96–e121.
Van Horn L, Carson JAS, Appel LJ, et al. Recommended Dietary Pattern to Achieve Adherence to the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology (AHA/ACC) Guidelines: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016;134(22):e505-e529.
The Hartman Group, Eating Occasions Compass (2017).
What We Eat in America, NHANES 2015-2016, individuals 2 years and over (excluding breast-fed children), day 1. Available: www.ars.usda.gov/nea/bhnrc/fsrg.
Disclosure: All suggestions you see here are my own personal and professional opinion. None of the products or sources have asked, paid or otherwise compensated me to be included here.