It's inevitable—you're watching TV and you just want a little something to munch on. The problem is, a little something usually turns into a lot of something, which means calories and weight gain.
"Recent studies show that 90+ percent of people snack at least once per day," says nutritionist Lauren Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of the web site Nutrition Starring You. However, she says, snacking shouldn't be for when you're hanging out on the couch. Snacking is really a way to keep up your energy levels between meals. "Think of your body as a car," Pincus says. "You need fuel on the road, not in the garage."
But if you just can't help but have an evening snack, try one of the items listed below, which are low in calories and fat.
The ideal snack should be:• A combination of protein, healthy carbs, and good fats.
Beware of:• Protein and energy bars, which are often filled with as much sugar and calories as candy bars.
"Any watery fruits or vegetables are great snacks since they don't have a lot of calories," says nutrition expert Pam Peeke, M.D., author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Hunger and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. She suggests taking strawberries, grapes, or other fruits, and freezing them to grab when you crave a snack. "They're fun to eat and take forever and a day to get through," she says. Plus a cup of frozen grapes only has 110 calories.
One of the best snacks is a little bit of dark chocolate, says Dr. Peeke. Dark chocolate is filled with antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. "We're talking an ounce here, which is a square, not a whole bar," she says. And the chocolate should be 70-72 percent or more cacao to get the antioxidents. "Take very small bites, don't just throw the whole thing in your month, since that's not really satisfying," she says.
Dietician Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, President of KAK Consulting, suggests mixing fruit with dark chocolate for a healthy snack. "Have a 1/2 cup mixed berries with some melted chocolate chips—yum!" she says. An ounce of dark chocolate has about 170 calories per ounce, but you also get three grams of good-for-you fiber, and two grams of protein.
"Another idea is to always pair fruits with proteins or fats," says Kirkpatrick. Easy snacks: Apple slices smeared with a little peanut butter, or pear slices with a small cube or two of cheese. "Nut butters are great but are highly caloric, so you don't need much, just a little schmear," says Dr. Peeke. You can also try carrot sticks dipped in a little hummus or guacamole, as an alternative. In terms of calories, one apple cut into slices with a little bit of peanut butter has about 200 calories, which is in the good-for-you snack range.
Popcorn has long been hailed the king of healthy snacks. "So long as it isn't slobbered over with tons of butter and salt, it's okay since it has a lot of fiber," says Dr. Peeke. In fact, research shows that popcorn may have more fiber and antioxidants than vegetables. As for portion size, you get a lot of bang for your buck with popcorn, as long as it's air-popped. Three cups of air-popped popcorn only add up to 93 calories, which is ideal if you're someone who likes to eat more than just one handful of a snack.
If you're really hungry, but don't want to overdo it, consider having what Dr. Peeke calls, "the guts of a sandwich" rather than a whole sandwich. "A little chicken or fish is okay," she says. "You just don't want to eat too much protein close to bedtime since protein gives you energy and can keep you up." Also consider foregoing the bread and just having a couple of turkey slices rolled up and a few rounds of cut tomato. Two slices of turkey rolled up only have about 40 calories.
Some trail mixes are highly-caloric, so you have to be careful what you put in it, but Pincus suggests that with the right ingredients, trail mix can be very satisfying for not a lot of calories. She suggests mixing low-sugar, whole-grain cereal (puffed cereal is great) with some freeze-dried fruit (such as raspberries or blueberries), nuts (like walnuts), seeds (such as chia, which are a nutritional superstar at the moment), and a few mini-chocolate chips.
"Pistachios are a great snack all by themselves," says Pincus. "Thirty equal about 100 calories and they take a while to eat." Other great nuts to grab a handful of: almonds, walnuts, and cashews. All three of those have "good" unsaturated, heart-healthy fats, brain-boosting Omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber. If you reach for those nuts, just watch your portion size since one handful has about 175 calories.
If nuts aren't your thing, Pincus suggests trying roasted broad beans (which you might know as fava beans). They are packed with protein and iron, come in many different flavors, have only 36 calories per handful.
"Smoothies are tricky because they can be a light and healthy snack or a calorie disaster depending on what's in them," says Pincus. To make a healthy, 200-calorie smoothie, try blending any kind of berries and a banana with low-fat milk or Greek yogurt. For more low-calorie smoothie ideas, click here.
Depending on which cereal you choose, a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk can be a healthy snack option. "Look for a cereal with less than 6 grams of sugar and at least 3 grams of fiber per 3/4-1 cup serving," says Pincus. For an additional nutritional boost, toss in a few berries. A bowl of Cheerios and a half a cup of skim milk will only set you back 150 calories.
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