How to Tell if a Snack is Healthy…
You’re at a meeting, and you come face-to-face with a basket full of snacks.
Which snack do you pick if you want to stay healthy and not wreck your diet?
It’s downright confusing.
You find yourself staring at the spread of delicious choices like a deer in the headlights.
- This one has a fancy name – Biscotti – that sounds healthy.
- Oh, there’s some dark chocolate, that’s good for you, right?
- An oatmeal crème pie! I love those! Does the oatmeal make it an okay choice?
Let’s face it, choosing snacks to eat for healthy weight loss can be a muddled mess.
Our sense of good and bad is made foggy by the pretty packages, misleading names, and conflicting nutrition soundbites that bombard us on a daily basis.
In the famous words of that crazy fitness lady from the 90s, it’s time to “Stop the Insanity!”
I’m going to show you how to tell if a snack is healthy, so, at-a-glance, you can make the best choice for your diet.
I will also rate each of the goodies from our basket to let you know which I would choose and why.
Test Your Healthy Snack Knowledge [Quiz]
Do you want to test your snack knowledge before we get started?
Your mission, should you accept it, is to assign a letter grade to each of the basket items.
When you’re done, jump to the bottom of the post to see why each snack got its grade.
How to Pick a Healthy Snack That Won’t Wreck Your Diet
As a college instructor, I know that people learn in different ways.
So, I created a video to walk you through how to tell if a snack is healthy and explain why your favorite snack got its grade.
Is it Okay to Snack When You’re on a Diet?
Since this post is about how to tell if a snack is healthy, you might assume that I’m all for snacking.
But, snacking can be okay if you’re doing it out of true hunger.
You see, there is a difference between true “stomach” hunger and false “head” hunger.
True Hunger vs. False Hunger
True hunger is felt in your belly. It’s a sensation that comes on slowly. True hunger is a call by your body for food because it’s finished digesting what’s in your system and there are no more nutrients to process.
True hunger is gentle and polite at first, initially showing itself as little pangs in your belly. If you ignore the pangs, they fade away and then gradually ramp up again, increasing in intensity with each wave.
False hunger is experienced in your head. It comes on fast and can take over your thoughts in an instant. False hunger has very little to do with your stomach or how much food you have passed through your digestive tract.
False hunger is loud and demanding. It’s the type of hunger that makes you dive into the snack bar even though you just had lunch an hour earlier.
It’s fine to feed true hunger with a healthy snack. In fact, it can be helpful. You don’t want to let yourself get too hungry on a diet because it could lead to cravings for sweets.
Learning to tell the difference between true hunger and head hunger is a valuable skill and essential for starting a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s how you do it…
How to Rate Your Hunger to Tell if You Need a Snack
To get control of snacking, it’s a good idea to learn how to use a hunger scale to rate your hunger.
Rating your hunger is a skill that could save you hundreds of calories a day, and you’ll have it mastered in less than a week.
Imagine a scale from 0 to 10 with “0” meaning you have zero hunger and “10” meaning you are super hungry.
Now, set your phone to chime at 10 AM, 3 PM, and 7 PM.
When you hear the chime ask yourself, “How hungry is my stomach?”
You want to focus on your belly and how it feels. Put your hand over your belly can help you focus.
- If you are below a 3, then you’re not truly hungry, so snacking should be avoided.
- If you are a 4 to 6, then your belly is in the satisfied zone, and you don’t need a snack.
- If you are a 7 or above, then you’re hungry enough to justify a snack.
Practice rating your hunger on the hunger scale for five days in a row, and you will have it down so well that it will become an automatic snack barometer for you.
With this skill, the next time you find yourself in front of the vending machine, you’ll be able to tell in an instant if you need to insert your spare change and push the button. I suspect you’ll go home with a jingle in your pocket more often than not.
The Best Snack to Satisfy That “Picky” Feeling at Work
Here’s a quick side note…
A study, published in the journal Food, Culture and Society, looked at the diet pitfalls of the workplace.
The authors found that even the most careful dieters were often sabotaged by snacks that would materialize in the breakroom, catered meals, and office “food alters”.
What turned out to be an office worker’s best defense against unwanted snacking?
Having water at their fingertips offered a sense of control against the unhealthy snacks.
According to the authors,
“water offers an opportunity to make a positive nutrition choice. It serves as both a totem against an out of control food landscape and a means of washing away one’s sins.”
Having a full bottle of water with you at all times will keep your hands and your mind out of the snack basket.
How to Rate a Snack for Healthy Weight Control
Proteins and Fats and Carbs…Oh My!
Once you’ve determined that you’re truly hungry, you’re ready to focus on how to tell if a snack is healthy and appropriate for weight control.
You want to choose a snack that will carry you through to your next meal, so your best bet is a slow-digesting food.
Slow-Digesting Snacks have the following beneficial ingredients:
- Healthy Fats
- Vitamins & Minerals
Fast-Digesting Snacks have the following diet-destroying ingredients:
- Added Sugar
- Refined Carbs
- Unhealthy Fats
- Empty Calories
Let’s take a closer look at these ingredients.
Make High-Fiber Snacks Your Top Choice
When I find myself in front of a basket of snacks, the first ingredient I think about it fiber.
For food to be high in fiber, it has to be close to its natural state. Fiber is found in plant foods. It’s the tough part of the plant (think apple peels and celery stalks).
Fiber slows your digestion, and delays the transfer of sugar to your blood, so high-fiber foods work wonders for keeping hunger and cravings under control, which is why they are such a big part of my 7-Day Challenge Diet and my Ultimate Guide on How to Naturally Lose 10 Pounds in a Month.
Vitamins and minerals are bonus items found in high-fiber foods and provide additional hunger control.
Fiber Quick Rule:
My quick rule is to look for a snack with at least three grams of fiber per serving.
Of course, when you’re in a meeting, you don’t want to hover over the snack basket reading labels, so instead, look for the least processed snack in the basket.
Is there a vegetable or piece of fruit available? Then grab it.
Nuts and seeds can also provide a good helping of fiber, but if they are packaged, then they have likely been roasted in unhealthy vegetable oils (see unhealthy fats below).
Protein and Healthy Fats Are Your Next Two Best Ranking Factors
Both protein and healthy fats slow digestion, so when you eat snacks with these ingredients, they will keep you satisfied.
Protein Quick Rule:
Protein snacks come in both plants (i.e. nuts & seeds) and animal (beef jerky, cheese, and yogurt) form. For a guide, you should aim for a snack that has five grams of protein or more per serving.
The healthiest fats come from whole foods (i.e. nuts & seeds), but your body needs a variety of fats to stay healthy, so even saturated fats from meats and dairy foods have their benefits.
The problem with protein and fat-containing snacks is that they are often roasted in unhealthy fats or have added sugar and preservatives that knockdown their health value.
Avoid Snacks that are High in Sugar
Did you ever eat a piece of chocolate when you weren’t hungry?
If you did, then I bet I can guess what you did next…
You had a second piece of chocolate.
Eating chocolate and other sugary foods stimulate the pleasure center of your brain. Being the pleasure-seeking creatures that we are, when this area is stimulated, we want more.
[Additional Resource: You’re Addicted to Carbs…Now What?]
Sugar Quick Rule:
If you don’t want to blow your diet, then avoid snacks that are high in sugar. My rule is to avoid foods that have sugar listed as one of their top three ingredients.
But there’s a catch.
You see, there are easily 60+ names for sugar, so sneaky food manufacturers disguise how much sugar is in their products by adding different types of sugar.
So, be savvy.
The table below shows Ten Common Names for Sugar.
If they are listed on the ingredient’s list, then snacker beware. That snack could spark a binge.
Avoid Snacks that are High in Refined Carbs
Refined Carbohydrates are just as addictive as sugar.
They have been milled and processed to get rid of the tough parts of the grain, which is the part that easily spoils. With that perishable part gone, the shelf life of the food increases.
However, that tough part of the grain is also the part that contains the fiber, vitamins, and minerals; when it leaves it takes the nutrients with it.
When you eat a refined carb, you get a tasty snack that’s filled with empty calories that spike your blood sugar.
In half an hour, the snack will be through your system, and you’ll be back in the breakroom for snack #2.
Is Sugar-Free a Good Snack Choice?
Don’t make the mistake of jumping for the sugar-free snack. These foods are often filled with chemicals.
If the food is sugar-free but has a long list of ingredients that are hard to pronounce, leave it in the basket.
Look at this crazy example…
Here are the ingredients for COFFEE-MATE French Vanilla Sugar-Free Liquid Coffee Creamer.
Do you see the sneaky sugar names? I circled them!
Yes, there is an asterisk that tells you that there are “trivial amounts of sugar,” yet ingredients are listed by weight, so with sugar being ingredient #2, at best, this creamer is not sugar-free, and at worst, it’s a container full of chemicals.
Avoid Snacks that are High in Unhealthy Fats
Processed snack foods are filled with unhealthy fats.
To avoid unhealthy fats, you want to avoid these ingredients:
- Hydrogenated oils
- Trans fats
- Vegetable oils (soybean oil is often listed)
Hydrogenated oils and trans fats are man-made fats that have been manipulated in the lab and added to the foods to increase their shelf life.
They, along with vegetable oils, create an imbalance between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, which leads to inflammation and a long list of chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and many types of cancer.
Grading Time! See Why Each Snack Got Its Grade
Learning how to tell if a snack is healthy is a skill, and I had to learn that skill just like everyone else, so if you feel clueless when it comes to snacking, know that you’re not alone.
Alright, here are the grades I gave the snacks in my snack basket
Apple (A): The apple, like other fruits, is high in fiber, which is the first thing I look for. Yes, fruit contains natural sugar, but that sugar is balanced by the fiber, which slows its absorption.
Nuts (B): If this were a package of raw nuts, it would have received an “A”. Unfortunately, most packaged nuts, seed, and trail mixes are roasted in vegetable oils, which make them high in the inflammatory omega-6 fats.
Cheese (B): I’m not big on eating dairy products on a daily basis, but they are fine to have on occasion. Cheese is high in protein and saturated fats, which are fine for your body, and control hunger.
Just don’t eat cheese with refined crackers. The refined crackers will spike your blood sugar, which spikes the fat-storing hormone called insulin. The result is a snack that turns to body fat.
Yogurt (B-): This grade would be higher if the yogurt were Greek Yogurt, which tends to be higher in protein and lower in sugar. However, the one in the basket has added sugar making it a poorer dairy choice than the cheese.
Granola Bar (C): I’m going to give granola bars a general grade of C, but these types of packaged snack bars have a wide range of ingredients that can make their score go up or down.
Granola bars are tempting, but due to the added sugars and unhealthy fats found in most bars, don’t make them your go-to snack.
Beef Jerky (C): Proceeds meats contain a lot of preservatives, and some, like the one in our snack basket, have sugar as the second ingredient. Yes, there is a fair amount of protein, but this processed meat is not health food.
Pretzels (C): Pretzels have a reputation for being a natural snack. I’m not sure why? They are highly refined, which means they have very few of the natural vitamins and minerals they started with.
Pretzels are not roasted in unhealthy fats, and they don’t have sugar added, but this low-fiber food only earns a C.
Biscotti (D): Biscotti sounds healthier than a pretzel, but it’s not. This refined carb has very little fiber or protein, but quite a bit of added sugar and unhealthy fat.
Dark Chocolate (D): Dark chocolate gets a lot of press for being healthy, so chocolate manufacturers make their products darker. Healthy dark chocolate is not something you gorge yourself on because the healthy stuff is low in sugar and bitter.
If the package does not say at least 70% cocao, then this is not the chocolate you’re looking for. The chocolate in the basket has sugar as its second ingredient and does not mention the percentage of cocao. These are red flags that tell me it’s not the healthy stuff.
Peanut Butter Crackers (D): Peanut butter is tossed around as a somewhat healthy snack, so when you see peanut butter crackers in the basket, you might think it’s a good choice.
Despite the fair amount of protein (5 grams), peanut butter crackers have all of the negatives (i.e. high in refined carbs, sugar, and unhealthy fats).
Oatmeal Crème Pie (D-): Oatmeal is healthy, but an oatmeal crème pie, not so much. High in added sugar, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats, this tasty snack will wreck your diet.
Pastry (F): Packaged pastries, like the Honey Bun in our basket, have few redeeming qualities. This snack fails because it contains health-destroying hydrogenated oils, sugar, and refined carbs with little, or no, protein or fiber.
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About the Author
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.