Pictured recipe: Clementine & Pistachio Ricotta
Long gone are the three-square days. Now basically everyone snacks, and half of us do it two or three times daily. Healthy snacking can keep you from getting so ravenous you overeat at your next meal. "But if portions are too large—and all too often, they are—it's easy to overshoot your calories, especially when you're eating six times a day," says Johannah Sakimura, M.S., R.D., a dietitian at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J. Avoid what she calls a "snack fiasco" with these science-backed strategies.
Related: 10 Ways to Snack Smarter
Refined carbs like cookies won't sustain you. (In fact, they can increase your appetite!) Try going for spicy snacks seasoned with chile pepper. The compound that brings the heat (capsaicin) may also suppress hunger. Or pick yogurt, which is packed with satiating protein. Plus, dairy products have been shown to boost levels of hormones associated with fullness. Think texture too. The more complex the mouthfeel of a snack, the less you'll eat at your next meal—so a yogurt-and-fruit bowl topped with crunchy nuts outperforms a one-note smoothie.
Protein has a unique ability to satisfy us on fewer calories and keep hunger at bay longer. In a study from Cornell, a snack of cheese and vegetables helped quell the appetites of children moreso than chips—and, as a result, the kids felt full with 72 percent fewer calories. The same was found for grownups too.
Nuts are also a good high-protein snack, especially since researchers say a portion of the calories from almonds, peanuts and pistachios isn't absorbed by the body.
The average snack has 226 calories—which means two a day could inflate your week by nearly 3,200 calories (almost a pound of weight gain).
To control calories, choose a snack with a natural "physical boundary," says Yale's David Katz, M.D., such as a small yogurt or a banana. Or pour a measured amount into a bowl.
Be extra mindful if you're drinking snacks like smoothies. "We don't compensate for calories in the liquid form like we do for food because they don't fill us up," warns EatingWell advisor Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., R.D.
Pictured recipe: Pear & Cottage Cheese
Snacks are everywhere—the hardware store, the office, even the gym.
To avoid grazing all day, make a plan for when you're going to snack. Every 3 to 4 hours is a good guide: going longer can trigger a low-blood-sugarresponse: hunger pangs, fatigue, even irritability.
For most people, a late-afternoon snack makes sense.
A snack between lunch and dinner can subdue the appetite so you can make better choices and eat less at dinner," says Katz.
Post-dinner snacking is trickier. Research shows there's a peak wave of cravings at 8 p.m. for salty, sweet and starchy foods. But nighttime noshing may alter hunger hormones and promote fat storage, leading to weight gain and higher "bad" cholesterol. If you're a night owl, choose a small, healthy bite (a sliced pear or bowl of sugar-snap peas) to thwart a cupboard cleanout.
A snack that's a whole food (a hard-boiled egg or carrots) keeps calories and portions reasonable. But if you're reaching for something packaged, a short list of ingredients you can recognize and pronounce is a good litmus test. That's because lengthy lists tend to include flavor enhancers and added sweeteners that stimulate your appetite instead of satisfying it. Watch out for savory snacks that contain sugar, such as nuts coated in both sweet and salty flavors. These combos may cause you to eat more.
Instead, decide for yourself if a snack is healthy. Letting clever marketing sway you could impact your food choices later on. When study participants sipped a sugary shake labeled "healthy," they ate more potato chips later than those who had the same drink labeled "indulgent." When you think a food is good for you, you subconsciously lower your defenses the next time you eat. Sure, the setup was sneaky—but so is the snack aisle. Phrases like "all natural" and "high protein" often don't tell the full story. Face the snack facts by flipping the package and scrutinizing the nutrition label.
Hungry? Snack away! But just craving something? That you can satisfy by playing a game that alters your mindset. One called FoodT is particularly effective, saving participants 200 calories a day when played four times a week. The game pairs nutritious snacks with green symbols and foods that are treats—say, cake—with red ones. This teaches the brain that cake means "stop," not "go," making it easier to turn it down in real life. Need a faster fix? Other research shows that occupying your mind with a video game (especially one with a strong visual component, like Bejeweled) for just three minutes weakens cravings when a hankering hits.
Looking for another way to hack your thinking? Here are 4 ways to ditch the diet mentality and be healthier.