I'm often asked to provide a program to groups who need a speaker. Commonly, a requested topic is "healthy snacks." The next most-requested topic is "healthy snack recipes" and here I usually refer folks on to the local library (where cookbooks and magazines fill many shelves). Still, I'm stuck with filling the first request when I'm fairly sure that most people do know what a healthy snack is (Hint: a healthy snack is probably not found in the snack food aisle).
A snack, after all, is a light meal taken in between larger, more formal meals. If the word "snacking" makes you think of bagged chips, pretzels, crackers and cookies, just remember that those bagged "snacks" are also high in sodium and fat and low in fiber. This is especially important if you are trying to watch your weight, lower your blood pressure or control your blood sugar. If you look at the Nutrition Facts label on typical snack foods packaging, you'll see that one serving is usually a very small amount and NOT the entire contents of the bag.
A healthy snack isn't a recipe; it's the ingredients that go into the snack that make it healthy. If your snacks are based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables with a little dairy and lean protein, you will be on your way to better health. Naturally, keeping a light hand on the salt shaker and paying attention to the saturated fat content helps too.
As you push your grocery cart through the store seeking the elusive healthy snack, here are some tips on what to pick up. I always start with the Grains group. This is where breads and low fat, whole-grain crackers are located. Other choices are rice cakes, baked tortilla chips, whole-wheat pita and whole wheat bread. Notice that in order to be called "whole wheat" the product has to BE that. Look for those two words-"whole" and "wheat" - otherwise, it's just another overly refined wheat product with no wheat germ and no wheat bran.
The next food group of foods I like falls under the Fruit and Vegetable category. Hanging around the produce aisle is where some of the best snacking stuff is found. Reach for the raw vegetables, salad greens, crunchy jicama and maybe a cucumber for that salad. Cabbage comes in red colors as well as green and has lots of phytonutrients in it. Grab some fresh sweet peppers and do spend a little more to try the red and yellow ones - they'll be much sweeter than green peppers. Fresh fruits and dried fruits belong to the "healthy snack" category too. Just watch out for over-doing the dried fruits; for example, a half-cup of fresh, juicy grapes shrinks down to just two tablespoons of raisins.
Don't avoid the canned foods aisles. Here is where vegetable juices and vegetable soups can be found alongside fruit juices. Even though more processed, there are great bargains here. Check the labels for sodium and added sugars. Hint: juice cocktails are usually more water (up to 90%) than juice...that's why they're called "cocktails" and not juice.
The heart healthy proteins include nuts and nut butters, bean dip, bean soup and bean salad. Other healthy choices include baked tofu, canned tuna and canned salmon. Another snack choice could be from the heart healthy dairy group. Try nonfat light yogurts, fortified soymilk and skim milk. Abundant calcium is an additional benefit.
For best results, do not go down the "snack food" aisle. Great choices do not hang out there. Or, save that aisle until last and determine that you will buy only one item from that location and make it as small as possible - chewing gum or breath mints come to mind. Just don't linger there - lest you become seduced by the sodium, sugars and fats so alluringly displayed. Remember that those standard bagged snacks (fried chips, cheese curls, cookies, and pork rinds) are rarely good choices.
It all boils down to making informed choices, having a Plan and a shopping List. Shop the store perimeter first for the healthiest foods. An occasional trip down the snack food aisle is OK, but don't commit to long-term parking.