On Your Health

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Are Your Healthy Snacks Actually Junk Food?

Many people think fat-free cookies are a healthier option than a regular cookie, and that choosing a chef salad is a much better choice than a cheeseburger. But really, there are a lot of foods perceived as “healthy” that are packed with hidden calories and sugar. 

Unhealthy foods and snacks are part of the reason that Americans are more obese and sicker than ever before. Thanks to slick marketing campaigns and misleading information, many snacks you think are healthy are really sneaking in calories you’d never suspect. 

Despite your best efforts in choosing healthier snacks, many choices might be sabotaging your health and your weight. Even granola, which is the healthy snack of choice for many, isn’t as healthy as you think – thanks to added sugar and the huge portion size most people eat.

So how do you snack in the healthiest way possible? We’ve asked an expert!

Is my healthy snack really healthy?

INTEGRIS dietitian Karen Massey, who is a community nutrition educator, says all foods can be healthy or unhealthy. It simply boils down to the quality of nutrients you are getting from your food.

“How can you tell if your so-called healthy snack is junk food?  All food choices are on a continuum where the nutrient density (quality) varies,” she says. So-called junk foods don’t contribute many nutrients, but may still be incorporated for ‘fun’ within the broader picture.

“Marshmallows aren’t going to win any nutrition awards but enjoying a few isn’t a problem when mixed into a diet that otherwise includes a variety of healthy food from the food groups,” Massey says. “Conversely, snacking on an apple won’t offset eating a basket of fried steak fingers and onion rings on a regular basis.”

Even cheat items like candy, cookies and soda can be incorporated into a healthy diet as long as they are eaten as a rare snack. The majority of a healthy diet should include whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and nutrient-rich foods. An occasional bowl of chips or handful of candy won’t do lasting damage, just don’t make it a daily habit.

“Since most packaged foods have a Nutrition Facts label, one of the best ways to compare snack choices is to look at the label,” says Massey. “Choosing foods that fit into your calorie budget is a good starting place. A seemingly healthy granola bar may have as many calories as a pastry or cookie.”

Quality matters, too. “Guacamole tends to be higher in fat than French onion dip, but the nutritional value of guacamole is significantly higher.”

How should I choose healthy snacks?

Ideally, snack choices should be based on the same rationale as meal choices. Focus on including a variety of foods from the basic food groups. After all, snacks contribute a significant portion of American’s daily food intake.  

“Incorporating fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean protein foods at snack time is an excellent way to achieve health goals,” she says. 

In addition, “Every person is unique. There isn’t a recommended ‘quota’ for snacking. How many snacks depends on a person’s activity level, body size, medical situation, schedule and personal preferences,” says Massey. Some people rarely snack at all, while others derive a significant portion of their daily food intake from snacks distributed throughout the day.  

Keeping track of snacking habits can be insightful, especially if you include notes that mention how each snack contributed to your personal goals. For example, if eating an afternoon snack helps you avoid overeating at dinnertime, then the afternoon snack may be a wise strategy.  

“Conversely, if eating an afternoon snack tends to trigger the desire to munch right up to bedtime, it may be better to forego or limit snacking in the afternoon,” Massey says.

Healthy snack ideas

If you are struggling with finding healthy snacks, we’ve got a few recommendations! Healthy snacks can include:

  • Low-fat string cheese
  • A handful of non-salted almonds or pistachios
  • An apple, banana or other fruits
  • Carrot sticks with a couple of tablespoons of hummus or almond butter
  • Sliced red bell pepper with 3 ounces of guacamole
  • Greek yogurt with half a cup of berries
  • Apple slices and low-sugar peanut butter or almond butter
  • Baked kale chips
  • Cherry tomatoes with a slice of mozzarella cheese
  • A hard-boiled egg

For more information about healthy snacks, especially for your kids or teens, read our blog post about great grab and go snack ideas for teens.

Snack foods to avoid

Some snacks can sneak in extra calories or preservatives that can get your blood sugar out of whack and can cause lethargy. When choosing snacks, avoid:

  • Added sugar: Even food like granola or dried fruit can have massive amounts of added sugar.
  • Soft drinks or “energy” drinks: Just an extra daily 12-ounce can of a sweetened beverage can add on 15 pounds a year. Sports and energy drinks are just as bad thanks to all that added sugar.
  • Baked sweets: It may be hard to pass up the community donuts in the break room, but snacks like cookies and pastries are full of processed carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, salt and, of course, sugar. 
  • White foods: White bread, potatoes, cake, rice and pasta are all available in whole-grain, which is a much healthier snacking choice if you’re craving carbs.
  • High-fat or processed meats: Those beef sticks, hot dogs and even deli ham can be full of salt and preservatives. Choose fish, skinless baked chicken or nuts for that protein fix.

Learning to read nutrition labels is one of the best strategies in picking healthy snacks. Also, the On Your Health blog is full of healthy recipes and nutrition tips to help you and your family live a healthier lifestyle.

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