How many times have you come home after a long day and devoured the first food you find? Despite your best efforts to choose healthy snacks, it can be hard to make smart choices when your stomach is sounding its hunger alarm.
Hunger pangs aren't the only hurdle to healthy snacking: While most people can point out unhealthy items—i.e., that family-sized bag of chips or king-sized candy bar—what makes a snack healthy in the first place? According to WW’s head of nutrition and wellness Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, healthy snacks often include at least one unpackaged item without a nutrition label, i.e., a piece of produce. And while they can be less convenient than quick store fare, dishes made from scratch using whole ingredients tend to be healthier than alternatives.
“The closer a food is to its original state, the more nutrient-dense it's likely to be,” London says.
Another way to determine whether your snack qualifies as healthy? Think about how—and much of it—you eat. Research suggests that you eat more when mindlessly snacking or when you're distracted. Double or triple a snack serving, and you might find yourself gobbling up the caloric equivalent of a meal.
That’s not to say all snacking is problematic or superfluous. One positive way to look at snacking, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is to picture snacks as small meals that serve as a “bridge” to get you from one primary meal to the next.
How healthy snacks may promote weight loss
While whole foods like fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains provide essential nutrients that your body needs to function, healthy snacks may also help you reach your weight-loss goals because they:
- Prevent overeating: Because snacking between meals fends off hunger, it may help curb food cravings and reduce the possibility of overeating at your next meal—particularly when you pair ingredients that are high in protein and fiber, according to a 2016 review of studies on snacking published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. London also advocates adding fat to the mix.
- Curb sugar cravings: If you tend to reach for sweets when you feel extra hungry, pairing high-fiber and high-protein foods may also help alleviate that urge. Fiber helps to slow the rate of digestion and absorption in your gastrointestinal tract, London says, while protein requires more "work" to break down and digests at a slower rate. It’s one reason why pairing an apple (for its fiber) and cheese (which serves up protein) rather than choosing one or the other may help you feel fuller for longer.
- Provides nutrients: Your body needs both macronutrients (i.e., fat, protein, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to function. But as it happens, consuming nutrient-dense foods can also help you lose weight in the long run: In a 20-year study of 120,000 adults conducted by the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that people who ate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, yogurt, nuts, and whole grains rather than low-quality foods (i.e., potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed meats) were more apt to lose weight than gain it over the course of two decades.
For some healthy snacks that can lead to weight loss (and actually taste good), read on:
Go savory: 8 healthy snack ideas
Remember: If your savory snack contains protein, fiber, and healthy fats, it’s most likely a healthy choice. “I typically recommend combos that combine produce, whole grains, starchy veggies, satisfying protein, and fat-containing additions like nuts and nut butters, seeds, spreads (e.g. hummus and tahini), hard boiled eggs, or cheese,” London says. Alternatives may include:
If you’re looking for a simple snack that packs a nutritional punch, edamame beans are a great choice: A half-cup serving of edamame contains 7 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, as well as calcium, which many Americans don’t get enough of. You can find the green soy beans, which either come in pods or de-shelled, in most grocery stores in the frozen vegetable section. Just microwave a serving (about half a cup of shelled beans or a heaping cup of beans in their pods) and sprinkle it with a bit of sea salt to enjoy.
The elements of a Caprese salad deliver vitamins C and A (tomatoes), fat and protein (thanks to low fat or fat-free mozzarella cheese), plus a burst of flavor (thank you, basil!). Thread these ingredients on a toothpick or stack them on a bite-sized piece of bread for portability.
3. Baby carrots and hummus
Often find yourself reaching for crunchy snacks? Try baby carrots. Easy to pack in a tupperware container or baggie on the go, they’re rich in fiber, as well as vitamins C and A. Just add hummus: Made from smashed chickpeas with spices, oil, and/or tahini, this dip is a great source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
4. Sweet potato garlic and rosemary oven fries
Instead of buying pre-packaged popcorn, which can sometimes deliver a long list of unnecessary ingredients, pop your own on the stove or microwave and add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and dried thyme. This particular recipe not only contains fiber from popcorn, London says, but protein from Parmesan, a higher protein cheese.
Zucchini is a nutrient-dense veggie that serves up fiber and complex carbs. When coated in breadcrumbs and baked, zucchini sticks taste similar to fries. To add fat to the mix, try the recipe pictured above, which includes a homemade honey mustard mayo for dipping.
7. Shrimp and cucumber tzatziki bites
Shrimp delivers a dose of protein without a lot of fat—and the same goes for fat-free Greek yogurt. Combine these protein powerhouses with raw cucumber, lemon juice, and spices like mint and dill, and you’ve got a light snack that’s sure to wake up those taste buds. Try the recipe pictured above here.
8. Swiss cheese and grapes
In a hurry and need something that requires zero prep? Grab a cup of grapes to load up on fiber and vitamin C, and about 1 ounce of cubed, low-fat swiss cheese, which contains satiating protein and calcium.
7 healthy snack ideas to satisfy your sweet tooth
If you feel like a treat after lunch, don’t ignore it! “The more we try to ‘save up’ or limit ourselves throughout the day, the more likely we are to overindulge later on,” London says. Instead of avoiding sweets, hit the spot with a snack that also contains protein, fat, and fiber.
1. Greek yogurt and mixed berries
Convenient and affordable, yogurt can be a worthwhile addition to your diet thanks to its calcium, protein, magnesium, and B12 content. What’s more, most yogurts contain gut-healthy probiotics, which may help promote digestion. Greek yogurt, which is strained, tends to be thicker, creamier, and have a higher concentration of protein than traditional yogurts. To sweeten the deal, berries, which deliver fiber, vitamin C, and folate along with natural sugars, and a drizzle of honey and walnuts for some dietary fat and a heartier snack.
2. Dark chocolate-drizzled strawberries
When your sweet tooth feels insatiable, fruit can hit the spot due to its natural sugar content. For an even richer treat, drizzle strawberries in dark chocolate, which typically contains less added sugar than milk chocolate, and also contains flavonoids, antioxidants that have been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease. Set in the fridge until firm, then enjoy. (If you’re looking to amp up the protein and lower the sugar content of this snack, London recommends skipping the dark chocolate and spreading unsweetened peanut butter on your fruit instead.)
3. Frozen yogurt-covered blueberries
4. Dark-chocolate-covered almonds
Almonds make a well-rounded snack choice as they’re high in fiber, magnesium, calcium, and healthy fats. What’s more, a few small studies—including one published in 2013 and one in 2014—that suggest snacking on almonds may promote satiety.
To step this snack up a notch, reach for dark-chocolate-covered almonds, which are found in most grocery stores. (Tip: Look for brands without added sugars or a long list of artificial ingredients.) You can also make your own by dipping almonds into dark chocolate and letting them harden.
5. Strawberry basil popsicles
Blend naturally-sweet strawberries, which are rich in fiber and vitamin C, with a bit of honey and fresh lemon and freeze in a popsicle mold for a snack that sure feels like dessert. For a boost of protein, London recommends adding a serving of cottage cheese to the mix before freezing. Get the recipe here.
Another source of fiber and vitamin C, apples are the perfect grab-and-go snack. To add a dose of protein and satiating healthy fats, slice one up and top with peanut butter, then drizzle with chocolate syrup for a real treat. (Pro tip: When prepping an apple-based snack you’ll eat later, prevent browning with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.)
7. Maple-pecan fried bananas
Bananas are full of fiber as well as potassium, an essential mineral that helps support healthy blood pressure. Another pro: They’re naturally sweet. Fry and top with protein-rich pecans to treat yourself. You’ll find the recipe here.
10 healthy snack ideas for work
Nothing threatens a day of smart snacking like a box of glazed donuts in the break room or a coworker’s homemade cookies. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional office sweet, arming yourself with minimally messy, healthy snacks can prevent you from over-indulging.
Need some quick ideas to ward off hunger pangs throughout your work week? Try these:
- Raw nuts
- Dried fruit
- Healthy crackers (i.e., whole grain)
- Low-sodium beef or turkey jerky
- Unsweetened apple sauce
- Whole fruit
- Baked kale chips
- Wasabi peas
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Greek yogurt
- Low-fat cheese sticks
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Bran muffins
Tips for buying healthy snacks
When it comes to filling your fridge, pantry, and portable containers with healthier packaged snacks, there’s no shortage of options; however, some healthy-sounding processed foods can contain added sugars and salt, two additives many Americans already consume in excess. The best way to ensure that you’re choosing foods that will actually benefit your body is to do a little planning:
- Don’t shop hungry. How many times have you walked into a grocery store with a grumbling stomach, then proceeded to buy all the things? Plan a healthy snack to eat before you collect your cart to think more clearly on every aisle.
- Make a list. Instead of grabbing items that look good to you at the moment, plan which snacks you want to eat before heading to the store.
- Shop all the aisles. Since the basis of many healthy snacks tends to be produce, begin with the store’s perimeter, where the whole fruits and vegetables tend to be sold. Then top off your cart as you'd top off your snack: Add canned goods like beans and soups, whole grain crackers, peanut butter, and so on.
- Plan ahead for treats. Nobody should have to live without the occasional treat. Decide what you want yours to be before heading into the store so you can avoid those last minute, checkout-counter impulse grabs.
- Check the ingredients. When you’re considering whether to purchase pre-packaged food, check the first few ingredients for added sugars, which may be listed as maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Another ingredient to watch-out for: sodium, which could lead to high blood pressure and related issues if consumed in excess on the regular. Packaged goods with phrases like, “no salt added,” “low-sodium,” or “reduced-sodium” tend to be safe bets.
- Choose single-serve packages. Portion control—or lack there of—can make a major difference on the scale. Single-serve packages eliminate any guesswork. Bonus: They also make snacking on-the-go super convenient.
- Splurge on flavors, not calories. Keep your taste buds from growing weary by trying new flavors and spices whenever possible. If you love eating veggies with hummus, try the roasted garlic tub one week and a red pepper-flavored alternative the next. Top your Greek yogurt with berries one week, and then try homemade granola the next.
The upshot: Can healthy snacks help you reach your goals?
A healthy snack nourishes your body, satisfies you, and helps you on your weight loss journey by reducing the likelihood of overeating later on. “The more satisfied we physically feel, the simpler it becomes to stay in touch with hunger and satiety cues,” London says.
What's more, getting creative with flavors, and cycling through a wide variety of whole foods to get those macro and micronutrients, can help save both your body and your taste buds from fatigue. If you find yourself snacking too much due to distractions or in response to emotions like stress, it may be helpful to see a medical professional who can help you press reset. Similarly, if you have specific diet requirements or restrictions, brainstorming with a doctor or registered dietician can help you find healthy snacks you’ll enjoy.
No matter how you slice (or dice) it, eating healthy snacks can help you reach your goals.
Jessica DiGiacinto is an associate editor at WW. A health and wellness writer and editor based out of New York, she’s contributed to Popsugar, Bulletproof 360, and Galvanized Media, among other media outlets.