Snack: A little word that packs a big punch. There is endless information about when to snack, what to eat, what not to eat, and why you should be doing this and not that. Let’s be honest, it can get confusing, especially when you’re looking for heart-healthy answers. Not to mention our food cravings can fluctuate without warning. Instead of trying to dictate what and when you eat, learn to listen to your body and assess what you really need.
Not sure where to start? Here are five tips for healthy snacking when your appetite strikes.
1. Assess your hunger
“Learn to listen to your body and let yourself get truly hungry so you can understand what hunger actually feels like,” says Dr. Janet Brill, nutrition expert and author of Cholesterol Down and Prevent a Second Heart Attack. Hunger is often a deceptive reaction triggered by external factors—like emotions—often leading us to eat when we’re not really hungry. “People, especially women, emotionally eat—they eat because they are angry, bored, tired,” Brill said. “That is emotional eating and that is why so many people are overweight, which increases your risk for heart disease.”
Before you bite, start with a glass of water and revaluate where your hunger pains are coming from. If water did the trick and you feel your hunger receding, wait an hour or two before making your way back to the kitchen. Still hungry? Grab a heart-healthy snack like an apple or fresh veggies dipped in hummus.
2. Decide what to eat
“Eating for good health means preventing tremendous hunger,” Brill said. And if you’re eating the wrong foods, you may never feel full. A day consisting of simple carbohydrates (think white bread and pasta) and lacking in protein will often lead to a hunger attack later. When you’re picking a snack, revisit your last meal. Was breakfast oatmeal or toast? Grab a Greek yogurt or some cottage cheese. Did you opt for a leafy, dark green salad for lunch? Aim for fiber-filled, whole wheat crackers and hummus for your afternoon snack. Remember, it’s all about finding the balance that works for you. Brill suggests keeping a food diary to help keep track of daily intake and learn more about your eating and hunger habits. (This can also help you avoid emotional eating.) “An old pencil and paper will do,” she said. “The simple act of doing it is educational.”
3. Focus on your food
When you do snack, focus. Mindless eating is a huge factor in overconsumption, Brill explained. “If you eat mindlessly then you’ve possibly just had a snack that is more calories than you eat in an entire day,” she said. Since many of us multitask, it’s easy to stop paying attention and overeat while scanning email, running errands or taking the kids to soccer practice. Stop doing that. Your body deserves respect and mindless eating is an easy (and fast) way to rack up extra calories, which could eventually lead to heart disease and obesity. Brill explained that when you learn to make every calorie count, you’ll also learn to enjoy the pleasures of eating healthy food.
4. Get creative with your snack
Snacking doesn’t have to be boring. If you can, take the time to prepare something delicious—it can make all the difference when it comes to satisfaction. But good eats don’t have to be time consuming. For quick, heart-healthy bites try an apple, handful of raw almonds, or some fresh dark berries. Just remember these two words: fiber and protein. “You should have a lean protein and high fiber component to your snack—protein is the most filling and the most taxing when it comes to metabolizing,” Brill explained.
Snack time is also a great way to incorporate new foods into your diet or ones that you are not getting enough of like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Not ready to commit to a full meal of that strange looking veggie you picked up from the farmers’ market? Try it as a snack. As long as you are open-minded, your options will keep growing.
5. Prepare snacks in advance
If you have a hectic week ahead, set aside time on Sunday to prep things you can grab on the go. I recommendheart-healthy snacks like sliced veggies and fruit or nuts, which are always sure to please. The better prepared you are, the less likely you’ll be to make that late afternoon vending machine run. (And if you do end up there, don’t fret. Take a deep breath, check in with your body, and think through your options.)
Julia Rodack is NYC-based writer and editor. She loves food, fashion and alliteration. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Brooklyn Downtown Star and various online publications.