Americans are serial snackers. In fact, researchers say snacks account for an extra 580 extra calories per day in our diets.
We love snacks so much, in fact, that more than half the country uses them as a meal replacement, according to a recent Nielsen report—and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Healthy snacks—especially high-protein, afternoon munchies—can curb appetite, improve diet quality and speed up weight loss, recent studies suggest. But the wrong snacks can pack on the pounds faster than you can rip open a bag of chips. And there’s the rub.
Finding a good-for-you mini-meal isn’t easy because, in the American food jungle, chips are the most popular snack food (followed by chocolate, cheese and cookies). So simply the selection process, here’s a list of the worst “healthy” snacks for weight loss, and the damage control tips you need to stay on track:
1. Plain rice cakes
Rice cakes are an old-school diet staple. But the simple carbohydrates rank notoriously high on the glycemic index (GI) — a measure of how quickly blood rises in response to food on a scale of one to 100 (rice cakes come in at 82). High GI foods provide a rush of energy, but can leave you hungry within a few hours. Researchers at the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center found high-GI snacks caused excessive hunger and increased activity in craving and reward area of the brain—the perfect storm for overeating and weight gain.
EAT THIS TIP: Adding healthy fats or protein to a meal lowers its glycemic load. Swap a two cake mini-meal for one rice cake topped with a generous swipe of nut butter. The combo will keep you fuller for longer and has the added benefit of being a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.
2. Dark chocolate chips
Surely a few chocolate chips will satisfy your sweet tooth, right? Researchers aren’t so confident; people consume an average 41% more calories when snacking on unwrapped snacks, one study published in the journal Appetite showed. Researchers say peeling off a wrapper, or cracking the shell of a nut slows us down, which gives the body more time to send out “I’m full” signals. And the mounting pile of candy wrappers and nut shells serves as a visual reminder as to just how much we’ve eaten.
EAT THIS TIP: Remember that “just a bite” still has calories, and we usually don’t stop at just one bite. While high-quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) is the most waist-friendly choco choice, you may want to stick with a small portion of wrapped varieties over “hand to mouth” chocolate chips.
3. Roasted almonds
Sure, roasted nuts are delicious. But the high-heat cooking method does nut’n for your waistline. Raw almonds caused stomach acids to swell (in a good way) and were slower digesting than roasted almonds, creating a greater feeling of fullness that lasted longer, one study in the journal Food Biophysics showed. Moreover, store-bought varieties are often roasted in oil and then tossed in salt and preservatives. Emerald Nuts Dry Roasted Almonds may be oil-free, but you’ll find 18 other ingredients on the label, including monosodium glutamate (MSG), a controversial flavor enhancer linked to weight gain in some studies.
EAT THIS TIP: Go raw or go home. Brownie points if you opt for in-shell varieties. Named “The Pistachio Effect,” research shows the act of shelling nuts can slow you down and give your body a chance to register fullness 86 calories sooner than you would otherwise.
4. Gluten-free pretzels
For some people, eating gluten-free is a necessity. But for those who think “gluten-free” means weight loss-friendly, beware the health halo. A pretzel offers very little in the nutrition department—gluten-free, organic, or otherwise—and it’s easy to fall for the claims. In a recent study, people estimated snacks labeled “organic” to be lower in calories, more nutritious and even tastier than when reviewing the same snacks without the “organic” label. Moreover, processed gluten-free snacks are typically higher in carbohydrates and fats than regular varieties. Gluten-free Glutino pretzels, for example, have an additional 30 calories, five grams of fat and none of the fiber and protein of an equivalent portion of regular Rold Gold variety.
EAT THIS TIP: Don’t get it twisted: Pretzels are little more than flour and salt. Satisfy your salty, crunchy craving with a big bowl of air-popped popcorn instead. Three cups of the naturally gluten-free snack clock in at only 90 calories and count as a serving of waist-whittling whole grains.
5. 100-calorie packs
Reaching for a portion-controlled packet of crackers or cookies may sound like a good snack strategy for weight loss, but the mini-packs may fill you out before they fill you up, research suggests. In fact, dieters perceived small snacks in small packages as diet-friendly and ended up eating multiple packets and more calories overall than when given a regular-size package, a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found.
EAT THIS TIP: When dieting, you’re better off serving yourself a small portion from a regular-sized bag than falling for the allure of a minipack, study authors suggest.
6. Fruit smoothies
A fruit smoothie sounds like a virtuous choice for an afternoon pick-me-up, but be forewarned: Many store-bought options are blended with high-calorie dairy bases and cheap sweeteners that make them more dessert-like than diet-friendly. A small Baskin Robbins Mango Banana Smoothie packs 440 calories, nearly a third of what the average woman on a 1500-calorie weight loss diet needs in an entire day. Not to mention 96 grams of sugar—that’s more than you’ll find in 7 scoops of the chain’s Rainbow Sherbet. Adding insult to injury, banana doesn’t feature once on the ingredients list.
EAT THIS TIP: If you’re hankering for something sweet and fruity, nothing beats a whole piece (or two!) of the real thing. In fact, a recent study in the journal Nature found liquid carbohydrates to be 17 percent less filling compared with solid carbohydrates. As a general rule: eat, don’t drink, your fruits. And if it’s creamy that you’re craving, pair your fruit with a cup of low-fat plain cottage cheese or yogurt. A recent study found high-protein snacks eaten in the afternoon can improve appetite control and diet quality.
What happens when you take a bowl of oats, drown them in oil, cover them with sugar, bake them on a cookie tray? You get your average granola: highly delicious, highly caloric, highly likely to put you over your daily calorie budget in just one serving — and chances are you’ll munch through far more than a scant half-cup that makes up a single serving. In fact, a recent study found people served themselves the same volume of cereal regardless of caloric value. In other words, you’re likely to pour the same amount of granola into a bowl as you would corn flakes, and consume five times the calories in the process.
EAT THIS TIP: A big bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh fruit will fill you up for a fraction of the calories and fat as a small portion of energy-dense granola. In fact, a recent study found oatmeal to be the most satisfying breakfast in the cereal aisle—leading to greater and longer lasting feelings of fullness than ready-to-eat cereal.
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