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Go ahead! Grab a snack

» Why Mom was wrong

» Quality and quantity

» Target practice

» Portion control

Do you need a protein snack?

Most Americans get more than enough protein, the raw material of every cell in our bodies. But if you don’t eat meat, you may fall short. Protein-rich snacks include bean or split-pea soups, low-fat milk, low-fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, seeds, nuts, low-fat peanut butter and whole-grain bread.

How many calories are enough?

You can calculate the approximate number of calories you should eat each day to maintain your present weight by following these formulas:

  • If you’re sedentary or exercise only rarely, multiply your weight by 12. Example: If you weigh 135 pounds, multiply 135 by 12 and you’ll arrive at 1,620 calories per day.
  • If you’re moderately active (exercising for at least half an hour three to six times a week), multiply your weight by 15. Example: 135 pounds x 15 = 2,025 calories.
  • If you’re very active (an hour or more of vigorous activity each day), multiply your weight by 18.

Example: 135 pounds × 18 = 2,430 calories.

For many of us, snack is a word with an evil ring. It brings to mind images of forbidden foods like ice cream, crunchy cookies and crisp potato chips.

Grab a snack and you can expect to hear the echo of your mother’s voice: “Don’t eat between meals—you’ll spoil your appetite.”

Why Mom was wrong

Mother’s advice to the contrary, snacking can be a healthy part of your life. In fact, it’s not at all unnatural to want to eat between meals.

If you don’t eat something about every four hours, your blood sugar dips, which can make you feel tired and mentally sluggish.

Although many people believe that snacking causes weight gain, the reverse is often true. People who force themselves to resist snacks are more likely to be ravenous at mealtime and probably will overeat.

Quality and quantity

Of course, having permission to snack doesn’t mean it’s OK to pig out on pretzels. Rather, approach snacking as you would any other meal, being careful about what you eat and how much you eat. Think of those between-meal bites as an opportunity to add vital nutrients to your diet.

Yogurt, for example, is a healthful food, rich in calcium and protein as well as riboflavin, phosphorus and vitamin B12. But how often would you eat yogurt with a meal? If you’re like most people, not often. However, at 11 a.m., when you’re hungry and running out of steam, a cup of yogurt might be the perfect pick-me-up.

Target practice

It’s a good idea to use snacks to target specific nutritional goals. Most Americans don’t eat the recommended amounts of calcium and fiber. Women, in particular, typically miss out on about 25 percent of the iron they need. Many people would benefit from increasing their intake of all three nutrients. If you’re one of them, simply rotate your snack choices among all three groups, or choose foods that fill more than one nutritional need.

  • Calcium. For women, especially those past menopause, snacks present an opportunity to fortify the bones with calcium. Low-fat yogurt, as mentioned, is an excellent source of this mineral. Other options: 1 percent or skim milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, low-fat cheese and calcium-fortified cottage cheese.
  • Fiber. There’s mounting evidence that fiber protects against colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and adult-onset diabetes. Add more to your diet by snacking on fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. Some ideas: a fat-free raisin bran muffin, black bean soup, bran cereal with milk, raspberries, strawberries, a pear or an apple, half a grapefruit, fat-free fig cookies and raw carrots.
  • Iron. If you don’t get enough iron, your blood won’t be able to deliver enough oxygen to your body’s cells. That can lead to anemia, which causes symptoms that include weakness, dizziness, headache, drowsiness, fatigue and irritability. Premenopausal women are at highest risk because they lose iron each month with their menstrual blood.

Boost your intake of iron by snacking on dried fruit, pumpkin seeds, a baked potato, graham crackers or whole-grain breads or cereals. Vitamin C increases iron absorption, so you’ll benefit most if you combine one of the above with a glass of orange or grapefruit juice or a piece of fresh citrus fruit.

Portion control

What makes a snack a snack instead of a meal? The size of the portion. Follow the appropriate formula in the accompanying sidebar to determine how many calories you should consume in a day. Divide that number by four to arrive at a target number of calories per meal. Halve the number of calories allotted for one meal to come up with a rough number of calories for each of two snacks. Have your snacks when you feel hungry, light-headed or lethargic. Typically, people start to feel drained around 10:30 a.m. and then again around 4 p.m.

Next time you feel hungry between meals, don’t deprive yourself. Instead, remember that choosing the right snacks can actually improve your health by supplying your body with the fuel it needs when it needs it.

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