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Leslie Beck's Food for Thought

Snacks can help weight loss efforts Add to ...

If you like to snack, you're not alone. According to a survey released this month, snacking is on the rise among Canadians.

And for many of us, that's not a bad thing. The new study, conducted by NPD Group Inc., a global market research firm, revealed that we're snacking more often during the day than after dinner.

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The implication: We're noshing less on indulgent snacks such as chocolate and ice cream and more often filling nutrient gaps between meals with healthier items.

Fruit, yogurt and snack bars ranked among our top five snack choices, as did potato chips and cookies. While fruit remains our No. 1 snack over the years, yogurt and snack bars are edging out ice cream, popcorn and crackers as favourites.

Snacking does not have to contribute excess - and empty - calories to your diet. If you choose wisely, the right snacks can improve your diet and weight control efforts rather than derail them.

Eating a midday snack helps manage hunger and prevent overeating at meals. By having an afternoon bite, you're not ravenous when you arrive home at the end of the day and, as a result, don't polish off a meal's worth of calories before dinner. Taming your appetite with a snack also makes it easier to curb portions at suppertime.

Data from the U.S. National Weight Control Registry, the largest prospective study of successful weight loss maintenance, backs this up. Among more than 5,000 men and women who have lost, on average, 70 pounds and kept the weight off for years, the vast majority report eating often during the day instead of devouring three big meals.

Between meal snacks also avert lagging energy by providing a source of fuel when blood glucose dips and concentration fades.

Snacks also provide an opportunity to boost your intake of important nutrients such as protein, fibre and calcium. Young children have small stomachs, so they need to eat frequently to obtain the nutrients they need. Older kids need the added calories to fuel growth, development and physical activity.

Some snacks have the advantage of delivering specific health benefits. Nuts, for example, help lower elevated LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, and may help ward off Type 2 diabetes. Low fat dairy products, rich in calcium, are part of a blood pressure lowering diet (think yogurt, smoothies and lattes).

The trick, of course, is choosing a nutritious snack that will boost your blood sugar and keep it relatively stable until mealtime. Snacks should include carbohydrate to fuel your muscles and brain, along with protein and a little fat to slow digestion and keep you feeling energized longer.

Snacks should also have a low glycemic index (GI). Low GI foods are digested slowly, leading to a gradual rise in blood sugar, helping you feel energetic and satisfied longer.

Many snacks that are easy to reach for - cereal bars, bagels, pretzels - have a high glycemic index. They're digested relatively quickly and cause blood sugar to spike. While a rapid rise in blood sugar will give you an energy boost, it doesn't last long. High GI snacks cause the body's pancreas to release excess insulin to clear sugar from your bloodstream, which can lead to premature hunger and overeating.

To control weight, snacks should contain 150 to 200 calories for women and 200 to 250 calories for men.

Nutrient rich, low GI snacks include fruit and nuts (a small handful), yogurt and a medium-sized fruit, a homemade smoothie made with milk or soy milk and frozen berries, one cup of bean soup or vegetarian chili, ½ a pita with tuna, raw vegetables and hummus, whole grain crackers and part skim cheese, or bran cereal with yogurt (Kellogg's All-Bran Buds is now available in single-serving packages).

The following tips will help you stay ahead of hunger and boost your energy.

Plan ahead

Bring your snacks with you to work or school so you're prepared when temptation strikes.

Practice portion control

Unless you're extremely active, snacks should not be the size of a meal. Stay clear of supersized snacks from coffee shops and juice bars. Most people don't need a 500 calorie scone or muffin with their coffee. Instead of slurping a 500 calorie smoothie, you're better off eating an apple and yogurt.

Don't snack from the box

Read nutrition labels to determine how many crackers, rice cakes or potato chips, for that matter, counts as one serving. Then measure out a portion and put it on a plate. You'll end up eating less.

Choose energy bars wisely

Not all energy and protein bars deliver on the nutrition front. Many that are high in protein are also low in fibre and higher in saturated fat. And some bars have as much as three teaspoons worth of sugar.

Look for a product with seven to 18 grams of protein, 20 to 25 grams of carbohydrate and no more than three grams of saturated fat.

Whole food bars such as Larabar, Elevate Me! and Salba Organic Real Whole Food Bar tend to be higher in fibre and healthy fats than traditional energy bars.

Be leery of 100-calorie snacks

Research suggests that people who snack from small packages consume more calories than those who eat from larger packages. It seems the notion of built-in portion control can turn off your willpower to stop after one bag.

When it comes to nutrition, most of these snacks are highly processed and lack appetite-suppressing nutrients such as fibre, protein and healthy fats. They don't fill you up the same way an apple and yogurt can.

Watch out for two-in-one packs

If you're craving a chocolate bar, resist the temptation to buy a two-in-one pack. Some companies have replaced king-size bars with two smaller bars in the same wrapper. The intention is to help people reduce portions by making these products more shareable, or to allow them to be eaten on two separate days.

But a study published this month in the online edition of Appetite found among people surveyed who had just bought a two-pack king size chocolate bar, 90 per cent intended to eat both bars on the same day. Consumers perceived the two bars as one serving because they came in the same package.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

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