By Barbara Martinez-Benavides, First Mile Care DPP Coach

America is a nation of snackers. According to Statista research published in January 2023, around half of the U.S. population says snacking serves as a meal replacement both at home and at work. Our long periods at home during the COVID-19 pandemic led to explosive growth in the sales of processed snacks like cookies, chips, popcorn, and pretzels. Luckily, as the pandemic has waned, consumers are now showing a growing interest in healthier types of snacks.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule about snacking that applies to everyone. How much you snack depends on your individual biology and lifestyle. One thing that is important across people, though, is to stay curious on why you feel you need to snack throughout the day. In the First Mile Care Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), our coaches ask: What’s triggering your snack cravings?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Could I feel hungry because I’m not getting enough quality  sleep
  2. Did I recently change my diet? Am I eating mindfully?
  3. Do my meals include all the macronutrients my body needs? Am I getting the right amount of filling foods such as fiber and whole grains?
  4. Am I drinking enough water, especially if I’ve been exercising? 
  5. Do I have really long days that are making me tired? 
  6. What’s my mood? Am I feeling stressed, bored, lonely, or sad?

“If I’m preparing for an important work-related call, I notice that I want to reach for a snack,” said Jeff Millhouse, who completed the First Mile Care program in Texas. “I ask myself: ‘Am I truly hungry, or anxious, or perhaps not hydrated enough?’ Sometimes just having a glass of water will suffice. I realize I associate food with relieving boredom or providing a sense of comfort.”

Mike Kowis is also a successful graduate of  the First Mile Care DPP. “When I sit down in the evenings to watch TV, I used to have a snack like popcorn or ice cream. After our discussion of triggers and habits in a First Mile Care session with Coach Sandra Huskey, I realized that I eat at night because it’s just what I do as a routine, triggered by turning on my favorite talk show. So I have learned to stop myself from opening the refrigerator or cupboard and instead ask myself, am I really hungry?”

Heck, you might even think you’re hungry because you were subconsciously influenced by a TV commercial!

If true hunger really is the reason you’re craving a snack, go for something nutritious, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, or seeds, rather than bombarding your body with a large meal or, heaven forbid, heavily processed chips and cookies with empty calories.

When you’re deciding on a snack, bio-individuality plays a huge role here again. What have you been eating throughout the day? What are you doing the rest of the day — jogging or binging TV? 

Here are some low-calorie yet filling foods that work well as healthy snacks: carrots, celery with salsa, cottage cheese, cucumbers, dill pickles, a hard-boiled egg, Greek yogurt, or roasted vegetables (e.g., broccoli and cauliflower cooked with olive oil spray).

I recommend including at least two food groups as part of your snack, for a more satisfying experience and to help you feel full for longer. For example, plain yogurt with berries, apple with almond butter, carrots or celery with hummus, a rice cake with guacamole, or a square of dark chocolate with an apple, are quick snack options.

“I’m a night owl and sometimes snack late at night, but now I eat carrots and celery at Coach Taylor Winkel’s suggestion,” said Olidia Thomas, who participated in the First Mile Care DPP in Michigan. 

If you want to get more creative with your snacks, check out these linked recipes: blueberry bites, chia pudding, fruit ice cream, crispy chickpeas, kale chips, and veggie trio salad.

Mike Kowis added, “If I want something salty and crunchy, I might substitute a raw carrot stick and sprinkle on a tiny amount of salt. I’m still getting that salty taste that I crave, but am also eating a healthy snack with vitamins instead of the empty calories in popcorn. It might sound weird to substitute carrots for popcorn, but it works for me!”

Now for the bad news …

If you’re trying to lose weight or just get healthy even when weight isn’t an issue, there are several common snacks that aren’t as healthy as you might think, and could even stall your progress towards weight loss (if that’s your goal).

Nuts. The high protein and fiber content of nuts make them a satisfying snack, but quantity and quality really matter. Nuts are already high in fats and calories, and then oftentimes have added flavors, oils, and salts which pack on more calories. If you nibble on the right portion, nuts make a great snack option, but it’s easy to over-indulge.

Smoothies. The healthiness of a smoothie depends on the ingredients you put in it. Some people add up to five different fruits, plus honey, plus toppings. If you make the smoothie yourself and keep it simple — one fruit, some greens, water, etc.) — it can be a healthy and filling snack option. Beware, though, that if you buy a smoothie, it could have even more calories than a milkshake. Check out First Mile Care Coach Sandra Huskey’s article on hydration with tips for creating healthier, satisfying smoothies.

Veggie chips. Just because the name is “veggie” doesn’t make them healthy. They don’t have fiber, so they won’t keep you full for long periods of time. They usually contain similar ingredients to regular potato chips — oil, sodium, preservatives, and other additives — so they are still high in calories.

As a general rule of thumb when it comes to snacks, be wary of misleading labeling. Some snacks labeled as “healthy,” “keto,” and “low carb” may indeed be good options, but many processed foods are disguised as healthy by buzzy marketing terms like “gluten free,” “low fat,” or — in the case of chips — “baked.”

Closing advice

I recommend keeping at least two healthy snack options available and ready at home, work, and in the car.  If snack meal prep at home is an option for you, that is a great way to set up yourself for success. When you do your food shopping, make sure you have at least one healthy snack on your grocery list, and ideally, in an individual or “personal” size so you’re not tempted to overeat when you open the packaging.  It’s even possible nowadays to find healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, and salads in gas station markets — but  always read nutrition labels carefully to avoid high calorie snacks. (You’ll find advice on interpreting nutrition labels in this article.)

First Mile Care DPP participant Al Cisneros offers this insight. “I’ve become attuned to where empty calories are placed on shelves. If I go into a convenience store, there are doughnuts nearby, or candy by the cash register. Instead of giving into sugar cravings, I walk a couple of aisles back and find a healthier snack like unsalted nuts or celery sticks.”

My final takeaway when it comes to snacking is an easy one, and usually costs nothing — always, always drink water before snacking. Not only will you know if it is indeed true hunger that you’re experiencing and not thirst, but the water will help fill you up so you may eat less of the snack.

To learn more about how you can benefit from the First Mile Care Diabetes Prevention Program, take the prediabetes risk test and get started today!