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The Best Weight Loss Snacking Strategies, Say Nutritionists

June 21, 2023
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

“Snacking” is sometimes treated as a dirty word when it comes to the idea of weight loss. This mentality started in childhood for many of us, when our parents cautioned against eating between meals so that it wouldn’t “ruin” our dinner. Whenever we may have first heard it, “avoid snacking” has become conventional wisdom for weight loss — but according to nutritionists, avoiding snacks isn’t wise at all. There’s no good reason to think of having a snack as “cheating,” whether your goal is simply mindful eating or healthy weight loss.

“Typically, we snack when our body needs more fuel, or we’re using more energy in a given day,” says Patricia Kolesa, RDN. “A snack can be helpful in between meal times — we typically require something to eat every three or four hours — when we need something to hold us over and prevent overeating at the next meal.”

Speaking from my own experience with healthy weight loss, I usually eat five times a day, including a snack between lunch and dinner, and also one a couple of hours before bed. According to Kiran Campbell, RDN, snacks are a vital part of your daily food intake. “Not only do they help prevent overeating or binging at meal times, but they also help promote gut integrity, metabolism, and stable blood sugars,” she says.

Of course, there’s a big difference between thoughtful, nutritive snacking and absentmindedly grazing through our cabinets and refrigerators when we feel a little peckish. According to nutritionists, here are five healthy strategies for developing good snacking habits that can lead to weight loss.

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1. Don’t think of any foods as “bad”

Villainizing any foods because of whatever content you’re trying to avoid — fat, carbs, etc. — doesn’t help us develop a healthy relationship with food that can be sustainable, whether or not you’re trying to lose weight.

“Try to neutralize foods as opposed to seeing them as good or bad,” says Kolesa. “Allowing yourself to eat what food you’re feeling in the moment reduces guilt, and reduces the chances of overeating that food down the line.”

This is also true of snacks, especially while we work to change our thinking toward them as something beneficial, rather than as evidence of dietary failure. “People tend to think of snacks as treats,” says Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, and founder of NutriComm, “but I recommend thinking of them like mini-meals, or nutrition fillers.” Basically, if it’s something you feel like eating, your body is probably telling you that it needs it.

2. Hydrate while you snack

While you’re thinking of your snack as a mini-meal rather than an indulgence, treat it like a meal by sitting down and having a glass of water alongside it. “Most of us can use more water, and doing so helps us register that we are eating a mini-meal, as opposed to grabbing a handful of pretzels on the fly,” says Broihier. Water is never the wrong answer, whether it comes to healthy weight loss, blood sugar management, or even better sleep.

3. Aim for balance

“Aim to have a snack that includes most food groups, so you’re more fulfilled and satisfied until your next meal,” says Kolesa. “That could be fruit with cheese and crackers, or vegetables with Greek yogurt dip, etc.”

This approach is also helpful in filling in the nutritional gaps in your food intake.

“Snack time can be when you make up for missing servings of certain food groups in your other meals — such as fruits, veggies, dairy, or whole grains,” says Broihier. “This approach helps make it easier to put together a nourishing snack.”

So rather than empty calories that can just take the edge off of your hunger, snacks can help you make up for what you’ve been missing that day. So if you started your morning with a spinach-and-feta omelet, for instance, you’ve done a great job getting some protein, vegetables, and healthy fats in your diet.

For your snack? Try a whole grain option, like air-popped popcorn, to round it out nutritionally. “The best snacks have a nutritional role and the ability to tide you over until your next real meal.”

4. Plan and use portion control

Planning ahead may seem counterintuitive to the idea of snacking, which we tend to think of as eating between meals spontaneously when you feel hungry. But, if you use one of the strategies above and think of your snack as a mini-meal and a necessary part of your daily nourishment, there’s no reason you can’t give it consideration ahead of time, and plan it into your day.

“The least helpful way to approach snacking is to wait until you’re famished and then run to the pantry to grab whatever carbs and sweets you can find,” says Broihier. “When you have snacks pre-planned, you can relax, enjoy your snack sitting down, and feel good about what and how you just ate.”

Planning ahead also helps keep your snacks in the ideal, mini-meal range. “I recommend keeping snacks to under 200 calories,” says Campbell. “Some snacks can easily turn into full meals if you aren’t mindful of portion sizes.”

Kolesa also suggests that planning ahead helps you keep your snacks convenient so that you have something healthy and satisfying ready to go when you do start to feel hungry.

Read next: I Lost 25 Pounds Relying on This One Kitchen Tool

5. Limit distractions and be present

Finally, enjoy your snack as you would a meal, and treat it accordingly by limiting distractions and sitting down to eat. (We’ve all been that person munching on something we’re not even paying attention to while illuminated by the light of the refrigerator.)

“Focus on your fullness in the present moment,” advises Kolesa. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘How do I feel?’ or focus on your chewing and bringing awareness to your satisfaction.”

Read next: 7 Healthy Lifestyle Habits That Can Boost Weight Loss

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