In the movie “The Core,” a young computer hacker who went by the handle “Rat” was arrested by the FBI. They needed him to control the flow of information on the Internet while a team of scientists traveled to the earth’s core to restore the Earth’s electromagnetic shield. Rat agreed to help, but his list of demands included an unlimited supply of Hot Pockets because “they help me focus.” These microwaveable turnovers may have helped save the world, but for the rest of us, there are much better snack choices.
Let’s start with a definition. A “snack” is a food or beverage consumed between meals. They are usually nutrient-dense but, unfortunately, are often high in sugar or salt, or both. This describes pretty much most of the foods served at movie theaters, including hot dogs, ice cream, Raisinets, Milk Duds, nachos, Gummy Bears, Sour Patch Kids, Junior Mints, Twizzlers, Skittles, soft pretzels, M&Ms, and (of course) salty, buttered popcorn.
Guilty pleasures aside, you should consider the possibility that the primary reason you crave snacks is that there may be something wrong with your breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If your primary meals are high in carbs, especially those that contain processed sugar, you may crave high-carb snacks to deal with blood sugar crashes. Obviously, this continuous consumption of high-sugar foods is associated with excess calorie intake and, as such, overweight and obesity.
A practical test to determine if you have a sugar problem is to have a breakfast that focuses on protein and healthy fats. An example of such a breakfast would be lean beef patties or chicken breasts with a handful of cashews or almonds. If you’re not craving Gummy Bears (or even Hot Pockets!) an hour after consuming such a breakfast, you should take a careful look at what’s in your primary meals.
Since one of the purposes of the government is to protect us, what type of snacks do they suggest we munch on? That depends on what country you live in. In a review published in 2016 in Advances in Nutrition, researchers found that a country’s snack guidelines may be an attempt to address nutrient insufficiencies.
“Although few countries recommend specific foods for snacks, countries with official dietary guidelines do tend to have population-level recommendations regarding the inclusion of certain nutrients or foods in the diet,” noted the researchers. For example, public health nutritional concerns for Brazil are fiber and vitamin A; France, calcium; and Switzerland, folic acid, iron, and Vitamin D. With that background, here is a look at what different governments around the world recommend their citizens snack on:
Australia: legumes, nuts, seeds
Brazil: fruit, milk, yogurt, nuts
Canada: vegetables, fruit
England: dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit
France: yogurt, milk, fruit, fruit juice, vegetables, bread with butter jam
Greece: nuts, seeds, fruit
Greenland: fruit, vegetables, crisp bread, dried fish
Switzerland: fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, cheese, yogurt, milk, nuts
US: vegetables, fruit
One reason we often make bad snack choices is poor planning. If you are in a rush and have to rely on what’s available at a local gas station “food” store, you may be forced into making bad choices. This problem is especially true for children. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2018 found that eating at home was associated with less sugar consumption and that “…the lack of affordable healthy options in leisure places and outlets selling food to eat ‘on the go’ may also act as a barrier to healthy eating, especially in older children.”
What is considered a healthy snack? How about lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats? Here are some “on the go” examples:
Lean protein sources: hard-boiled eggs, beef jerky
Starchy carbs from vegetable sources: bananas and carrots
Fruit: apples, berries, grapes
Healthy fats: cashews, pecans sunflower seeds, walnuts
What about health food bars? Yes, there are some good ones, and quality ingredients include a good protein source, such as whey or pea protein, and fiber. What you want to avoid are bars that contain trans fats, palm or kernel oil, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and maltitol. Consider, however, that quality health food bars can be quite pricy.
If you’re looking for better snack choices for kids, be aware that you may have to experiment – a lot! For example, kale chips are often recommended as a substitute for potato chips because they have high levels of vitamin K, fiber, and antioxidants. Great idea! But if a child has gotten accustomed to the fluorescent orange goodness of commercial potato chips, kale chips may be a hard sell.
Upgrading the contents of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals is one of the most effective ways to improve the quality of your life. Make that your first priority, but then take your personal nutrition plan to next level with some healthy snacks.