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When you're on the go, it can be hard to eat healthy. Some days, whether you're behind the wheel or on foot, the most convenient option for a quick meal or snack can be a convenience store. But just because you're turning to a 7-Eleven, Wawa or Circle K for sustenance doesn't mean you need to succumb to super-size sodas and chips. Healthier alternatives are available on the very same convenience-store shelves — if you know where to look.
We spoke with Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of nutrition and health sciences at Boston University, who suggested healthier choices to make when you're in a rush. Check out the list of snacks you should be able to find at a convenience store that are surprisingly good for you.
The convenience-store staple that has fueled countless road trips is a good source of protein, which you need throughout the day to increase muscle synthesis. Look for lean beef or pork jerky. Note, however, that dehydrated meats are high in sodium, with some jerky exceeding 1,000 milligrams per serving. Blake says that daily sodium intake should not exceed 2,300 milligrams (1,500 milligrams is ideal), so if a snack is high in sodium, make sure to balance it out with low-sodium meals the rest of the day.
Breakfast doesn't have to be in the morning. Seek out a single-serving package of whole-grain cereal for a fiber fix, and pair it with skim or 1 percent milk for calcium, vitamin D and potassium. The combination makes for a healthy snack or light meal any time of day.
"Most Americans are not getting enough fiber in their diet,” Blake observes. “As you get older you need less calories to maintain your weight, so you really need to make sure every bite is giving you good nutrition and some high fiber."
Speaking of fiber, whole-grain crackers are another acceptable source. Just make sure the crackers don't pack too much fat, Blake cautions. Scour the ready-to-eat case at a convenience mart for crackers packaged with fruit, nuts, cheese or lean meats. Wawa, for one, carries a grab-and-go snack pack with crackers, grapes and white cheddar (340 calories). A single serving of Wheat Thins (140 calories) has 3 grams of dietary fiber (11 percent of a typical person's recommended daily value).
4. Cheese Sticks
For an on-the-go pick-me-up or post-workout snack, cheese sticks are easy to transport and can be found at most convenience stores. The low-fat variety (look for either skim or 1 percent) is also lower in calories yet still packed with protein to satisfy your appetite until your next meal. Bonus: Cheese sticks and string cheese are good sources of bone-healthy calcium.
Canned fish is readily available and makes for a quality meal or snack. “It can help with longevity because fish has the [healthy] omega-3 fatty acids, and, of course, it's very low in saturated fat,” Blake says. Older adults should have two fish meals per week, she adds. In addition to canned tuna, some convenience stores will stock to-go salads. At Wawa, for instance, you can customize a healthy salad with, say, tuna, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers and light balsamic dressing (440 calories). Cumberland Farms serves up tuna salad on wheat bread (340 calories), which adds fiber to the protein punch that the fish provides. Canned salmon is a good alternative to tuna.
Pickles are the most commonly consumed fermented vegetable in the U.S. And you want to incorporate fermented veggies into your diet. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, health benefits of fermented foods include the positive probiotic effects coming from the good bacteria you're ingesting. Cucumber pickles are also free of fat and cholesterol, low in calories and full of vitamin K. But pickles are full of sodium, so avoid eating too many, especially if your doctor has you on a salt-restricted diet.
7. Cottage Cheese
"Most older Americans have grown up with cottage cheese. It's a fabulous, affordable source of protein,” Blake notes. “And again, it's something that can be eaten at all three meals.” Look for containers of cottage cheese in the refrigerated case, or check the grab-and-go section for cottage cheese paired with fruit.
8. Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Convenience stores conjure images of Doritos and doughnuts, but more chains are making an effort to stock fresh produce, as well. You may find whole fruits such as apples, oranges and bananas, along with chopped fruit and prepared salads. Selection varies by location, but 7-Eleven boasts healthy choices ranging from ready-made kale and quinoa salads (with diced apples, feta cheese and dried berries) to fruit harvest blends (chopped apples, strawberries, seedless grapes).
9. Sparkling Water
Sweetened beverages are the No. 1 source of added sugar in the American diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In order to stop “gulping all our sugar,” Blake suggests drinking sparkling water, which “has the essence of flavor without getting any added sugar.” Seltzer, club soda and sparkling mineral water all offer bubbles without the calories.
10. Unsweetened Coffee or Tea
The top perpetrators of added sugar among beverages are soda, fruit drinks, and sweetened tea and coffee. Plain tea and coffee, though, without milk or sugar, are virtually calorie-free and can provide a welcome caffeine boost to get your day started or get you through the afternoon lull. A large syrup-flavored iced latte with whipped cream from Sheetz, by contrast, packs 360 calories, and a large sweet tea from Casey's General Store has 550 calories (versus the 13 calories in a large unsweetened tea).