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8 Healthy Snacks: Are They Tricks or Treats?

healthy snacks

Fully 20% of kids’ calories now come from snacks, such as soft drinks, chips, cookies and candy, finds Gladys Block, a public health expert at the University of California, Berkeley.[1] And that’s on an average day, not Halloween night!

For Americans of all ages, increased snacking fuels our epidemic of obesity, as well as consequent diabetes and cardiovascular disease, suggest University of North Carolina researchers.[2] The main problem: Most snacks are just fat-generating empty calories that replace nutritious foods. Improving your snacking can dramatically improve your health.

8 “Healthy Snacks”: Will They Help or Harm Your Weight Loss Resolutions?

1. Popcorn – Treat! 

It’s a whole grain, a rarity among snacks, with huge health benefits. In Harvard research, women who ate the most whole grains, including popcorn, were one-third less likely to die of heart disease. Also, whole grains lower the risk of cancer and diabetes. A new study finds that eating whole grains reduces insulin levels 10%, helping curb hunger and diabetes.[3] Reduce butter and salt. Best: low-cal air-popped. If you microwave, buy “light” or low-fat brands.

2. Pretzels – Trick.

Although touted as a healthful low-fat snack, most are basically crunchy globs of refined flour with too much salt (up to 700 milligrams of sodium per ounce). Studies show that pretzels, like white bread, cause blood sugar to shoot up rapidly, making them more likely to lead to hunger, weight gain and diabetes. Make pretzels a sometimes-only snack.

3. Fruits and vegetables  – Treat!

Berkeley’s Block urges substituting them for a less healthful snack at least once a day. If kids did that, their fat intake would drop to acceptable levels, and that alone would “go a long way in reducing their risks of becoming overweight, and in the long run of developing diabetes, heart disease and other chronic, debilitating conditions,” she says.

4. Nuts – Treat!

A superb snack, full of nutrients and fiber. It’s a myth that they generally make you fat or clog arteries. Just the opposite. A new Harvard study shows that men who ate nuts twice or more a week had half the odds of dropping dead from a heart attack.[4] Peanuts help control blood sugar and hunger. (That includes peanut butter, preferably made by grinding unsalted peanuts.) Sunflower and pumpkin seeds and soy nuts are excellent snacks, too. Best bet: unsalted.

5. “Fruit snacks” – Trick.

Dried fruit is full of fiber and antioxidants. But many “fruit snacks” for children are disguised candy, loaded with sugar, artificial flavors and a smidgen of fruit. Any real fruit, even coated with chocolate, provides more nutrition than these health-food impostors. Sugary, chewy gobs “made with fruit juice concentrate” are not fruit. Your child deserves better.

6. Yogurt, low- or non-fat  – Treat!

It provides bacteria good for digestion, plus high protein and calcium. Be sure the label says “contains active yogurt cultures.” Yogurt with added fruit usually has lots of sugar and calories, so buy plain fat-free yogurt and add your own fruit. Whip up yogurt smoothies with real fruit. Don’t give frozen

7. Fruit and veggie chips, crisps and sticks  – Trick.

A mere 1/4 cup of fried banana chips can provide 8 grams of fat and 150 calories — a travesty next to a nutrient-packed 100-calorie banana. Some veggie chips or sticks are made of spinach or vegetable “powders” and purées, providing few disease-fighting phytochemicals. Make sure a vegetable (for example, sweet potatoes) is listed first or second on the label.

8. “Energy bars” – Trick.

They can give the same sugar rush and letdown as a candy bar, finds researcher Steve Hertzler of Ohio State University.[5] Better to eat a banana, apple or graham cracker; they’re cheaper, with more nutrients and fewer calories. A nutrition-rich bar has less than 5 grams of fat, less than 200 calories and 3 to 5 grams of fiber.

Dont Ignore the labels.

Your best defense against nutritionally shoddy snacks is to read labels carefully. The ingredients are listed in order of content. For example, if sugar (also called fructose or high fructose corn syrup) is first, it’s the No. 1 ingredient. Always check fat and calories. Typically, 50% to 60% of potato chip calories come from fats, mainly bad trans fats, listed as “partially hydrogenated” oil. Healthier fats are canola, olive and high oleic safflower oil.


1. Dietary Data Symstems of Berkeley, CA, analysis of NHanes III data. reported in April, 2002

2. Zizza C. Prev Med 2001 Apr: 32(4): 303-10.

3. Popcorn and insulin- Pereira MA, Am J Clin Nutr 2002 May; 75(5): 848-55

4. Nuts and heart attacks- Albert CM. Arch Intern Med 2002 Jun 24; 162(12): 1382-7

5. “Energy” Bars- Hertzler S, J Am Diet Assoc 2000 Jan; 100 (1): 97-100

This EatSmart column is reprinted from USAWEEKEND Magazine and is copyrighted by Jean Carper. It cannot be reprinted without permission from Jean Carper.

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