Friday, February 27, 2009

Healthy Snacking

The question of what to eat for snacks has come up on more than one occasion for me. Whether to snack or not is a matter of personal nutritional philosophy, so I won't try to tackle that issue. Clearly, I'm of the mindset that snacking is a good thing. That is, if the snacks you choose are healthy and relatively small.

A snack can really be anything, including things you might have as a meal, like pasta or salad. What makes a food qualify as a snack rather than a meal has only to do with quantity. The idea of a snack is mostly to get your body through to the next meal, so it should ideally be something that provides an energy boost. Of course, anything with calories would qualify there, although some calories convert to energy faster than others (fast conversion is actually not necessarily a good thing, as it also means a fast drop in energy afterward).

The unfortunate part of a typical American's snacks is that they consist mostly of junk foods. This is why snacking gets such a bad rap. Potato chips, m&ms, corn chips, cookies, and cheese doodles don't have nutritional purpose. They are basically emotional indulgences that do no service to our bodies (or our emotions, for that matter). Snacking this way will almost certainly cause you to gain weight, have higher cholesterol, have higher blood pressure, and be more likely to develop type II diabetes. Indulging very occasionally in these sorts of empty calories is probably forgivable, but making a regular habit of it will put you on a sure course to poor health.

Unfortunately, even the health conscious consumer can easily be duped into buying and eating things that have no business being ingested into a human body. The biggest scams in the snack food industry are the fat-free processed snacks, the sugar-free processed snacks, 100 calorie snack packs, and even many whole grain processed snacks. These give the consumer the illusion that they are eating something that is perfectly healthy for them, and unfortunately, that also creates the misconception that they can eat more of this junk. The reality is that instead of consuming fat or sugar, you are consuming chemicals and fillers that are likely worse for you than plain old fat and sugar. Artificial sweeteners don't make snack cakes healthy; they make them unhealthy in a different way. Products that say they contain whole grains may only contain a small amount of whole grains, and they may still be full of fat and/or sugar.

Reading labels is crucial, whether you're talking about snack foods or any other packaged food. The longer the list of ingredients, the more likely something unhealthy is hidden in that list. Unpronounceable ingredients are most often unhealthy chemical concoctions. Still, the practice of reading labels can be confusing and time-consuming, and labels do not tell the whole story. You will never be privy to the process of manufacturing as a consumer, and you will never know the origins of the various ingredients in the product. You will also be left in the dark about the exact proportions of ingredients in the product.

There is really no way to eat processed foods, junk or otherwise, and have control of your own health. But sometimes processed foods are hard to avoid. We're human, and most of us don't have the time to make everything from scratch. The key is to limit those processed foods that you do rely on to ones with short, simple lists of ingredients, with nothing objectionable or unpronounceable on those lists. Things like yogurt, granola, rice cakes, dried fruits and vegetables, can be perfectly reasonable processed snack foods (but read the labels!).

The best snack foods are not processed at all, and fortunately, they also require little or no preparation. Here is a list of those:
- fresh fruit (apples, grapes, oranges, pears, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries, berries, etc.)
- fresh vegetables (carrots, celery, bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, grape/cherry tomatoes, etc.)
- raw nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts)
- raw seeds (sunflower, pumpkin)

Here are a few ideas for homemade snacks that require some prep, but are still pretty simple:
- hard boiled eggs (thanks to my friend, Rose, who brought this to my attention today)
- baked sweet potato chips (Thinly slice a sweet potato. Spray a cookie sheet with safflower oil and spread the chips on the sheet. Spray the chips with a bit more oil. Bake at 250F for 1 hour, or until crisp.)
- homemade granola (I loved this recipe that I found recently. Add nuts, seeds and dried fruit, as desired)
- toasted nori (on a dry baking sheet, bake nori sheets at 350F for 10 minutes, or until bright green)
- trail mix (any combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit)
- smoothies (so many varieties ... I'll be sure to talk about this in a separate post)

Here are a few processed foods that we buy that meet our health standards:
- Just Tomatoes products (organic peas and corn mostly)
- unsulfured, low- or no-added-sugar dried fruit (raisins, figs, apricots, papaya, mango, pineapple)
- Annie's Bunnies crackers
- Lundberg's Brown Rice Cakes
- Stonyfield Farms or Seven Stars yogurt (plain, lowfat is best)

Snacks can be an important part of healthy living, if they are not abused. For adults, they are a great way to bring in small tastes of foods that don't usually make their way onto your dinner plate, which can help to balance out your nutrient intake. For kids, they can be a great way to get them to eat healthy foods, as so many kids tend to be more open to grazing on healthy foods than sitting down to a meal of them. Giving kids cookies and other such junk as snacks is, at best, a missed opportunity for healthy eating. At worst, it's a great way to contribute to the national childhood obesity crisis.

So, snack away! But keep to the good stuff!

1 comment: said...

Great ideas for snacking. Another thing to remember is to always have a little snack baggie in your purse or in the car in case you are out and hunger strikes. That way, you do not have to buy something unhealthy, but can munch on the snack you carried with you.