En español | We're a nation of nibblers.
Around 97 percent of American adults snack between meals. Once upon a time, we got our calories from three square meals a day, but now almost one-quarter of them come from snacks. And the average calorie count and size of those snacks have grown over the years. That's enough to sabotage any attempt to lose weight — or keep it off.
Yet there are ways to snack well and whittle waistlines. Here's what the experts advise.
1. Snack throughout the day. People who lose weight and keep it off don't skip meals or wait until they're ravenously hungry before they eat, says Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. "If you spread your calories throughout the day, your blood sugar won't fall and you won't feel hungry," he says. "When you eat 100 calories here and 100 calories there, you'll do a better job of not thinking that you're starving yourself."
2. Timing matters. A new study in the December Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that women who snack between breakfast and lunch lose less weight than those who don't. Many people eat out of habit, rather than to satisfy real hunger. And these mid-morning snackers might be among that group, says the senior author of the study, Anne McTiernan, M.D., director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. Mid-morning snackers also reach for more snacks during the day than the women who are more successful at losing weight.
But calories are calories, says Robert Eckel, M.D., of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. "If you want a mid-morning snack, decide what calories you'll give up later in the day."
3. Go nuts. Most people who are dieting believe they should stay far away from nuts. But nuts "are one of the healthiest snacks around. They're not digested quickly, so they help you feel full longer," says Donald Hensrud, M.D., a preventive medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "In fact, some studies show that overall calories don't go up by much if you add nuts to a diet, because people seem to eat fewer calories from other sources." Don't overdo it, though, Hensrud urges. "All you need is a small handful to tide you over until your next meal."
4. Plan ahead. "Before you turn in for the night, cut up some carrot, celery and cucumber sticks, pack them in a snack-size plastic bag and refrigerate," recommends Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Take the bag with you when you go out the next morning, and you'll have a snack ready when hunger strikes.
5. Prepack your portions. Don't be in a rush to store big bargain-size boxes of snacks in the cupboard as soon as you get home from shopping. "Instead, count out 100 calories' worth of crackers or pretzels, and store each serving in a small plastic bag," says Rena Wing, a Brown University professor of psychiatry and director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Clinic at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. Toss the empty box into the recycling bin. When you feel a snack attack coming on, grab a single serving. Voila! Automatic portion control.
6. Sip your food. Foods bulked up by water fill you up on fewer calories, so try a broth-based vegetable soup as a snack, advises Rolls of Penn State. "If you don't want to fuss, buy heat-and-eat soup," she says, "or make a big pot of broth filled with vegetables, pack it into single-serve containers, label and freeze." Then, when you're ready for a snack, zap one in the microwave.
7. Pay attention when eating your snack. To avoid mindless eating, concentrate on your food, advises Cheskin. "It's incredibly easy to overeat when you're distracted," he says. "There's no sense in having a snack if you get no pleasure from it." So turn off the television, close your book, forget the crossword puzzle and give your attention to your food.
8. Consider calcium. All of us need more calcium after we hit age 50, and snacking on fat-free dairy provides a great way to get more of this vital mineral without loading up on calories, says Rolls. Use a blender to whip up a thick, airy and filling smoothie with nonfat milk or yogurt, a banana, some frozen fruit and a few ice cubes.
9. Focus on protein. Calorie for calorie, protein is the most satisfying food, fat the least satisfying, says Cheskin. "A lot of people believe that fatty foods are filling," he continues. "They are, but only if you eat 1,000 calories worth. If you eat an equal amount of calories, then 200 calories of roast chicken breast will be a lot more filling than three one-inch cubes of Cheddar cheese." A high-protein, low-calorie snack is the best for curbing your appetite. Try some peanut butter on whole-grain crackers or a small serving of low-fat cottage cheese.
10. Drink the good beverages. Beverages are excellent snacks, says McTiernan, "but make sure to avoid sugary drinks." Coffee, tea and water are fine; if you add a lot of sugary syrup and whipped cream to that low-fat latte, it's no longer a low-calorie drink. "And rather than drinking fruit juice, which contains a lot of sugar, opt for the whole fruit, which contains fiber that helps you feel full."
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Nissa Simon, who lives in New Haven, Conn., writes about nutrition and medical issues.