When it comes to weight loss, snacking can be a double-edged sword. Too much snacking, and you'll blow your daily calorie allotment—and blow off your goals.
But done right, snacking can be your secret diet weapon, helping you to stay full between meals, reduce cravings, and make healthier choices without feeling deprived.
"I find that people often make poor food choices because they get so hungry they just grab whatever is close and handy," says Lara Felton, R.D. Snacks can save you from this common dieting pitfall, she says, if you do two things: prepare them in advance and pick snacks that have a balance of healthy carbs, protein, and fats. That way, when it comes down to it, you'll be able to skip the office pastry and instead eat the baggie of nuts and dried fruit in your purse.
This doesn't mean you can go nuts (ha!) with the healthy snacks, though, says Rachel Zimmerman, an R.D. at Indiana University Hospital at IU Health. "Just because snack foods like dark chocolate, nut butters, and avocado have earned nutritional kudos for being good sources of heart-healthy fats and other nutrients, that doesn’t mean you should eat a ton of them," she explains. "People think they can eat as many healthy snacks as they want, but they’re still high in calories that can cause unhealthy weight gain. When snacking on such foods, portion control is key."
It's not just the experts who swear by snacking, either. We spoke with real women who've lost weight and got their best tips for how they made snacking work for them, not against them.
KEEP IT UNDER 300 CALORIES
"For me, it is so important to have grab-n-go snacks to keep from getting too hungry, which can trigger me to overeat. Having a snack or meal every three to four hours helps keep my metabolism up, as well. I try to keep each snack under 300 calories and make it a healthy combination of protein, fats, and carbs. My favourites are Greek yoghurt, cashews, and popcorn; cottage cheese, almonds, and an apple; beef jerky, avocado, and crackers; or three hardboiled egg whites with hummus and some nuts." —Christina R., Palm City, Florida, lost almost 7kgs in 6 months
DON'T FEAR FAT
"I eat clean most of the time and exercise at least 20 minutes on most days—and snacking has been crucial to staying on track with that. The day starts every morning, with half a lemon squeezed into warm water with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and a dash of cayenne pepper. Then I eat three meals a day of protein, fruits, and veggies, with three snacks in between. My favourite snacks always contain a healthy fat, like cottage cheese and a piece of fruit, veggies with homemade hummus, or an apple with almond butter. The fat helps me stay full and energized between meals. I've been doing this since the end of May and am down 9kgs and lost many inches!" —Michelle K., Snohomish, Washington, lost 9kgs in 4 months
DON'T EVEN MAKE JUNK FOOD AN OPTION
"I am a snacker. I graze all day, all the time, and when I'm hungry, I'm hungry right now. I also have one heck of a sweet tooth; candy, cake, and sweets are my weakness. So I've learned that when it comes to picking snacks, I can't even have those in the house or that's what I'll eat. Instead, I make sure that I eat protein at every meal and snack. I eat a lot of protein! If I really need a sweet snack, I'll indulge in a Nature Valley's Oat and Honey granola bar with orange juice." —Linda W., Grand Rapids, Michigan, lost 7kgs in a year
USE SNACKS TO FILL IN NUTRITIONAL GAPS
"Instead of eating traditional processed 'snack' foods like crackers or cereal, I try to make sure my snacks incorporate things I need in my day to round out my diet. For instance, I usually have a giant salad mid-afternoon—it's kind of lunch part two. Around 5 p.m., I eat some nuts and fruit, followed by dinner at 8 p.m. Although I don't skip all treats! Every night, I have one square of dark chocolate with my tea before bed. This, along with making other lifestyle changes, has helped me lose over 45kgs pounds." —Leah W., Austin, Texas, down 45+kgs in 2 years
MAKE IT A MINI MEAL
"I lost weight well by eating six mini meals/snacks a day. I drank a glass of water before each snack. I also had a goal to eat nine servings of produce a day, so each snack contained 1-2 servings of produce, plus protein like chicken or nuts. It kept me full and helped me not feel deprived." —Mary R., Westerville, Ohio, down 24kgs in 1 year
EAT FIBRE, FIBRE, AND MORE FIBRE
"When I signed up for Weight Watchers, they taught me to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, as the extra water and fibre are a dieter's secret weapon. Eating produce as a snack not only kept me full, but it also reduced my cravings for sweets and other junk foods." —Marcie M., Minneapolis, Minnesota, down 27kgs in 1.5 years
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.