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Is Your Favorite Snack a Healthy Choice?

Supermarket aisles are packed with purportedly healthy munchies. We get the skinny on which ones are actually good for you.

January 23rd, 2013

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Is Your Favorite Snack a Healthy Choice?

Every so-called healthy snack has had its time in the spotlight—remember rice cakes? Even though they tasted like cardboard, they were the “it” healthy snack for a while. But are rice cakes and other similar munchies actually good for you—or are they more like treats?

MORE: Is Your Snacking Out of Control?

Strictly speaking, a snack should be a mini-meal that offers a nutritious pick-me-up, while a treat is often high in fat, sugar and/or calories and has little nutritional benefits to speak of. In some cases, “a snack may be no better for you than a cookie or candy bar,” says Paula Meyer, R.D., a dietitian in Westport, C.T.

Read on as we rate eight popular snacks and whether you should stick with them or ditch them.

Snack #1: Rice cakes

This once uber-popular “diet” snack has a mere 35 calories, but consists of high-glycemic, puffed-up white rice with a low nutritional profile. “They’re mostly made of air,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D., a dietician and author of “The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan For Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today.” “You’re better off choosing a low-glycemic snack that keeps you feeling full longer.”

Verdict: Ditch it. “You want to get as many nutrients as you can with your calories,” Palmer says. “You can enjoy a cup of fresh strawberries for those same 35 calories and you’ll get more flavor and nutrients.”

MORE: What You Need to Know About the Glycemic Index

Snack #2: Kale chips

The latest “it” snack is a mixed bag, nutritionally speaking. While kale itself is rich in vitamin A, C and K, your bag of kale chips may contain more additives than you’d think. “With oils, flavorings and salts, some kale chips contain as many calories as potato chips—160 calories per ounce—and loads of salt,” Palmer says. “Also, some veggie chips contain nothing but dehydrated potatoes and tiny amounts of dehydrated vegetables.”

Verdict: Ditch it and make your own. Roast kale with a small amount of olive oil and seasonings to get the maximum benefit. Or if you’re going to buy kale chips, look at the label and make sure kale is listed as the number one ingredient.

Snack #3: Sweet potato chips

If you think that swapping regular spuds for sweet potatoes would be a healthy upgrade—you’d be right. Sweet potatoes contain more fiber and vitamins A and C than regular potatoes. Just be sure to read the label of those sweet potato chips you’re snacking on to make sure you’re not getting some unwanted ingredients. “These chips should contain only sweet potatoes, vegetable oil, salt and maybe some seasoning,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Verdict: Stick with it.

Snack #4: Protein bars

Just because protein bars are stocked in the health food aisle, doesn’t mean they’re any better for you than a Snickers bar. “Most protein bars on the market are glorified candy bars, with chocolate coatings and lots of added sugars and processed ingredients,” says Begun. “Consider a protein bar something that should be eaten on occasion as a convenience food when other options aren’t available.”

Verdict: Ditch it—unless you’re in a pinch.

MORE: Are You Getting Too Much Protein?

Snack #5: Granola

For years, granola has been portrayed as a health food, but it’s actually loaded with calories and fat. “Most people don’t realize that a quarter-cup of granola contains up to 149 calories,” says Gina Keatley, a chef and nutritionist in New York City.

Verdict: Ditch it. Although granola has heart-healthy whole grains that can help lower cholesterol, it’s not a low-calorie option.

Snack #6: Baked chips and crackers

Just because a chip is labeled “baked” doesn’t make it better for you. For example, baked potato chips often contain cornstarch and added sugar. “These products are very processed and tend to be high in calories, fat and sodium,” says Keatley.

Verdict: Ditch it. 

Snack #7: Popchips

When you ‘pop’ a snack, you skip the frying or baking process. Although Popchips are low in fiber, they have zero trans fats, 0 to 0.5 grams of saturated fat (depending on the flavor) and are lower in calories per ounce than traditional chips, notes Lauren Schmitt, a registered dietitian in Studio City, C.A.

Verdict: Stick with it—but watch your portion sizes. “Popchips are a better crunchy snack than a bag of Doritos,” Schmitt says. “Still, I’d prefer to see people snacking on non-fat Greek yogurt or low-fat string cheese.”

MORE: Trick Yourself Into Eating Less

Snack #8: Rice crackers

For people with gluten allergies, rice crackers are a great option, according to Schmitt. “Rice crackers have little-to-no saturated fat, so they’re healthier than other snack foods,” she says. The downside: They’re essentially all carbohydrate with very little fiber.

Verdict: Ditch it. If you don’t have wheat allergies, opt for a multi-grain cracker and pair it with a hummus, bean or yogurt dip.

QUIZ: How Much Does Your Mood Affect Mealtime?

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