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How to Snack Smarter

Healthier choices to grab between meals

A close-up view of a woman using a spoon to eat yogurt from a white plastic container

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En español | A healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner are important. But what you munch between meals makes just as much of an impact on the quality of your overall diet as any of those three squares. That's because nearly a quarter of the calories American adults take in each day come from snacks, according to federal nutrition data. “Snacks need to not just satisfy hunger but also add nutritional value,” says Lauri Wright, chair of the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics at the University of North Florida.

As we get older this idea becomes more crucial. The reason? “Mother Nature is just not nice,” says Joan Salge Blake, nutrition professor at Boston University and host of the health and wellness podcast Spot On! Metabolism decreases around 2 percent — which amounts to about 150 fewer calories needed daily — each decade after age 20, Wright points out. As calorie needs go down, nutrient needs mostly stay the same or even increase. Thus, your meals and snacks have to pack a nutritional punch.

Here's the good news about snacks: If you choose the right foods, they can bridge nutrient gaps in your diet, help you stay satisfied so you don't overeat at meals, and give you energy when you need it — all while tasting great. Read on for a few strategies to make every bite count.

Control the calories

There's no precise number of calories you should get in a snack; the specifics depend on your individual needs. But in general, you'll want to look for foods that provide more nutrients and fill you up for fewer calories. “A well-planned snack can make all the difference in not gaining weight over time,” Wright says. Instead of chips or high-calorie snack bars, try air-popped popcorn with two rounded tablespoons of grated parmesan, or half a cup of cottage cheese with cantaloupe. Both options give you around 10 percent of your daily calcium needs.

Also, keep an eye on portion sizes, even for edibles that you think of as being good for you. If you're not sure where to start, try a snack that's around 100 to 150 calories; if that's not enough, eat more next time.

Pack it with protein

This satisfying nutrient is key when it comes to snacks that will tide you over until your next meal. According to a study from the University of Missouri, when adult subjects ate a high-protein yogurt for a midafternoon snack, they felt less hungry, waited longer before starting their next meal and, ultimately, ate around 100 fewer calories at dinner than those who'd snacked on crackers or chocolate. As we age we may need even more protein, to prevent the loss of muscle mass. Snacks that include beans, dairy or nuts — in items like hummus, yogurt and peanut butter — are all good sources of protein.

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Fill up on fiber

Protein is one-half of the satiation equation. The other half is fiber. In addition to helping us feel satisfied, fiber plays several other essential roles. “Fiber aids digestive health and can assist us with blood sugar control and lowering cholesterol,” Wright explains. Unfortunately, only around 5 percent of the population gets the amount recommended by health experts (for women over 50, that's 21 grams a day; for men, 30 grams). To help reach your daily goal, snack on fiber-rich veggies, such as carrots; fruits like pears or berries; legumes, including chickpeas; whole grains, such as popcorn; and nuts, like almonds.

Limit sugars

Take refined-grain snacks, like pretzels and crackers, as well as sweetened snacks, including cookies and candies, off your regular munchies menu; save them for once-in-a-while treats. For starters, they're not great at filling you up or providing valuable nutrients. What's more, foods high in simple sugars can cause inflammation in the body. “Inflammation is linked to many chronic illnesses, including arthritis, heart disease and even Alzheimer's,” Wright says.

Shake off the sodium

The American Heart Association recommends that adults age 50 and older limit sodium intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams daily — that's less than a 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Nearly three-quarters of the sodium we eat comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods. Making snacks yourself, however, means you can use lower-sodium ingredients to right at least one-half of the equation. Fresh produce, unsalted nuts and nut butters are naturally low in sodium. When you shop for packaged foods like whole-grain crackers or yogurt, compare labels to find the lowest-sodium varieties.

Rachel Meltzer Warren is a nutrition writer, educator and counselor.