The Snack Attack

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Well, if you still get the urge to snack, take comfort in the fact that snacks are okay. Not only are they enjoyable, but when chosen wisely, snacks keep hunger in check between meals so you’re not starving by the time the next meal rolls around.

Here are a few things to consider next time you reach for that Oreo Double Stuf cookie.

The Centre for Food Research at Queen Margaret College in Scotland reports that snacking does not necessarily predispose people to becoming overweight. Actually, those individuals who snack throughout the day may have the advantage over those who conform to a rigid pattern of three meals a day, in terms of weight control.

According to Jackie Berning, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition professor at the University of Colorado, a food that primarily contains carbs (e.g., fat-free pretzels) does not make a good snack because it will digest in about two hours. Instead, Berning recommends having “a mini-meal, such as five or six crackers with string cheese.”

Eating protein and fat together increases the likelihood that you will be satisfied for a longer duration. But keep in mind that according to Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of Harvard University’s TRIAD Weight Management Center, carbohydrates help to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which keeps you happy and satisfied — something you need to stop overeating.

Don’t expect snacks to help you fend off hunger if you weren’t hungry in the first place. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that snacking when you’re not hungry isn’t successful in staving off hunger pangs later in the day, no matter what kind of foods you eat.

If you’re planning a late dinner and need a snack to tide you over, choose something with additional protein, like nuts or cheese. The scientific journal Appetite reports that consumption of a high-protein snack delayed the request for dinner by 60 minutes — much longer than either a high-fat snack (25-minute delay) or high-carbohydrate snack (34-minute delay). Unfortunately, the snack eaten had no impact on how much food was consumed at dinner.

I know this sounds extreme, but if you’re snacking on something that is high in calories and you don’t love the taste — throw it out. This isn’t the time to be thrifty. Think of it this way — we probably spend more money on diet products, programs, and books than we would spend throwing away snacks that don’t taste good.

Come up with five different snacks you enjoy that are low in calories, and keep them readily available. “You should create snacks that are about 100 to 200 calories, depending on your daily calorie needs,” advises Berning.

According to the British Journal of Medicine, people tend to forget the snacks they eat that are high in calories, fat, and carbs. So pay attention to your snacks, especially if you’re eating them in front of the TV, at the movies, or in front of your computer.

Our snacking desires are closely related to psychological and social cues, rather than actual hunger. Since many of us struggle with portion control, we have a tendency to overeat snacks. This is why it’s critical to pick snacks that “are low in calories to compensate for your overindulgence,” reminds New York City nutritionist Shira Isenberg, R.D. Try low-calorie, low-sugar, and high-fiber cereal that you can eat dry (e.g., Kashi) — it’s great to munch on and can help you avoid putting on pounds. As a rule of thumb, assume you are going to eat as much as 50 percent more than you think you will.

Research from the University of Illinois has shown that if a snack is within sight and easy to get to, you are going to eat it. When candy was just six feet away from office workers’ desks (as opposed to right on their desks), the workers ate less of it. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that most snacking is actually done in the home — all the more reason to keep high calorie snacks out of your house and out of sight. If you have a snack attack, and there is only “good” stuff around — well, that’s probably what you’ll eat.

“Don’t worry so much about the morning,” suggests Isenberg. According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, afternoon was the most common time for snacking. So in the afternoon, make sure you have low-calorie snacks within reach. Her favorites: soy chips or fat-free yogurt.

The scientific journal Eating Behavior reports that watching TV induces high-calorie snacking. Results suggest that snacking (but not necessarily eating meals) while watching TV is associated with increased overall caloric intake, as well as increased calories from fat.

Although there is no supporting research, some anecdotal evidence exists that simply spraying a “dessert spray” can fend off cravings. The sprays have no calories, fat, or carbs. They are pocket size and contain over 75 sprays! They come in four flavors now — chocolate cake, strawberry cheesecake, mint chocolate, and wedding cake. They’re available at I tested them and must admit they’re interesting, but I’m not sure how they would fare up against a doughnut.

Here’s a list of tasty snacks to help you make smarter choices next time you’re grabbing a quick bite on the road or at the local coffee house:

Chocolate Craving

  • Worst Fried Snickers with Powdered Sugar (1 bar): 598 calories, 43g fat, 48g carbs, 6g protein
  • Bad Fudge (85g): 392 calories, 16g fat, 58g carbs, 4g protein
  • Middle of the Road Balance Gold Triple Chocolate Chaos Bar (50g): 200 calories, 6g fat, 22g carbs, 15g protein
  • Almost Healthy Kudos Chocolate Chip Granola Bar (1 bar): 130 calories, 5g fat, 20g carbs, 1g protein
  • Nutrition Savvy Swiss Miss Diet Hot Chocolate with Calcium (1 packet): 25 calories, 0g fat, 4g carbs, 2g protein

Savory Snacks

  • Worst Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Combos (1 single serving bag): 240 calories, 8g fat, 35g carbs, 5g protein
  • Bad Terra Chips (1 bag, 42g): 220 calories, 11g fat (2g saturated fat), 27g carbs, 2g protein
  • Middle of the Road Baked Potato Chips (1 bag, 60.2g): 220 calories, 3g fat (no saturated or trans fat), 46g carbs, 4g protein
  • Almost Healthy Glenny’s Barbecue Soy Chips (1 bag, 36g): 140 calories, 3g fat, 18g carbs, 9g protein
  • Nutrition Savvy Air-popped Popcorn (3 cups): 92 calories, 1g fat, 19g carbs, 3g protein

      Vending Machine

    • Worst Trail Mix with Chocolate Chips (1 bag — 5 oz): 741 calories, 45g fat, 64g carbs, 20g protein
    • Bad Animal Crackers (1 box): 299 calories, 9g fat, 50g carbs, 4g protein
    • Middle of the Road Peanut M&M’s (1 package, 1.74 oz): 250 calories, 13g fat, 30g carbs, 5g protein
    • Almost Healthy Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers (1 package, 35g): 180 calories, 9g fat, 21g carbs, 3g protein — contains hydrogenated oil (trans fat)
    • Nutrition Savvy Sunflower Seeds (3 oz package, 1 oz hulled seeds): 180 calories, 15g fat, 5g carbs, 7g protein — no hydrogenated oil

        With Your Coffee

      • Worst Starbucks Classic Coffee Cake (139g): 570 calories, 28g fat, 75g carbs, 7g protein
      • Bad Dunkin’ Donuts Maple Walnut Scone (1 scone): 470 calories, 22g fat, 62g carbs, 6g protein
      • Middle of the Road Dunkin’ Donuts Glazed Cake Donut (1 donut): 350 calories, 19g fat, 41g carbs, 4g protein
      • Almost Healthy Au Bon Pain Low Fat Triple Berry Muffin (123g): 290 calories, 2g fat, 61g carbs, 5g protein
      • Nutrition Savvy Starbucks Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti (28g): 110 calories, 5g fat, 15g carbs, 2g protein
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