Nutrition Diva’s Rules for Snacking

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by Papri Spice

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10.20.2021


I recently got an email from Gary, a long time podcast listener, asking how to decide whether or not a snack food can be considered healthy. He attached snapshots of several types of chips and crackers to his email.

“Is there a barometer that you use to rule a snack food in or out? I try to limit saturated fats, added sugars, sodium, and refined flours in my meals and snacks. These snacks all seem to be somewhat benign. But they are obviously processed. At what point do they cross over from a healthy snack to junk food?”

I had to laugh as I scrolled through the photos Gary sent because every single one of them is either in my cupboard right now or has been recently. Apparently, Gary and I have similar tastes in snacks!


Is this food healthy?

Over the years, I’ve received many variations on this question. Is this chip (or yogurt, or energy bar, or cookie, or sweetener, or whatever) better than that one? Whenever I’m trying to evaluate the healthfulness of a food, I have found it useful to ask 3 questions:

  • How much are you eating?
  • What are you eating it with?
  • What are you not eating because you’re eating this instead?

What Foods Deserve to Be Labeled Healthy?

Let’s tackle them one by one.

1. How much are you eating? 

Sometimes, we fall into the trap of thinking that we can eat more of something simply because it’s healthy (or healthier). So, if we select a tortilla chip that contains flax seed or a cookie that’s sweetened with honey or a bread that contains oat bran, we rationalize that we can have a larger serving or perhaps enjoy it more often.

A “healthy” snack may offer some nutritional advantages; it might have more fiber or omega-3s, for example. But it may not be lower in calories or sodium or sugar. (It might even be higher!) You’d still want to take a look at the Nutrition Facts label and consider how this food fits into your daily budget for these things. You’d also still want to pay attention to the portion size. For example, does that bag of whole grain chips contain one serving or three?

Biggest Nutrition Traps, Part 2: Quality v. Quantity

2. What are you eating it with? 

Individual foods also need to be considered in the context of other foods that are eaten with them. Sometimes we indulge in the a fantasy that one healthy choice cancels out an unhealthy one. Because the chips are dusted with spinach powder, we decide to go with the onion dip instead of bean dip or hummus. It’s the old “I’m having a diet soda so give me the large fries” thing.

I’m always likely to give a snack food a higher rating when it’s serving as a vehicle for healthy foods. That same onion dip, when paired with a plate full of raw vegetables, would rate a lot higher, for example, than it would when paired with a whole grain chip.

3. What are you not eating because you’re eating this instead?

Eating a whole grain flax cracker instead of a cracker made with white flour might represent a small nutritional upgrade. Snacking on whole grain crackers instead of nuts or vegetables? Not so much. 

If snacking is adding too many calories (or sugar or sodium or whatever), or they are displacing other nutritious foods from your diet, then it really doesn’t matter whether those snacks are the healthier version. 

How much is too much? One rule of thumb is to limit discretionary calories to about 10% of total calories. For most of us, this is around 200 calories. Discretionary calories are foods and beverages that don’t contribute to your nutritional needs for the day… they are just for fun. Alcoholic and sweetened beverages, desserts, and snacks would all be discretionary, for example. And the idea here is that if these foods account for more than 10% of your calories, the chances of nutritional shortfalls increase.

Is this food too processed?

Gary also mentioned that he tries to limit highly-processed foods—which is a pretty good idea. Several studies have linked the consumption of so-called ultra-processed foods to increased risk of obesity and other diseases. But would these healthier snacks be considered too processed? It all depends on where you draw the line between minimally processed, processed, and highly- or ultra-processed.

I think it’s most useful to think of processing on a spectrum. At one end are minimally processed foods, which would include things like plain yogurt, canned tuna, and frozen strawberries. Obviously, these are not the kinds of processed foods we’re worried about.

Can Processed Food Be Healthy?

At the other end of the spectrum are the ultra-processed foods.  Most of the ingredients in these foods bear little resemblance to the whole foods that they originally came from. Think: refined sugars, processed oils, starches, artificial colorings and flavorings, preservatives, stabilizers, and other additives. Ultra-processed foods are not only likely to be devoid of nutrition, they are also often intensely flavored and notoriously easy to overeat. These are the processed foods that we’re most worried about.

Processed Foods: How Much Is Too Much?

So, if an ear of corn is at the minimally processed end of the spectrum and Flamin’ Hot Fritos are at the ultra-processed end, where should we put the Quinoa and Black Bean Tortilla chips that Gary sometimes enjoys?

Obviously, this will be a bit of a judgement call. But I’d start by checking out the ingredient list. Does it read more like a recipe or a lab experiment?

I don’t have a bag of the Quinoa and Black Bean chips in my kitchen right now, but I could theoretically make some—I do have all 8 of the listed ingredients and could probably figure out how to combine them into something that would resemble the prototype, using my new tortilla press and a baking sheet or maybe my air fryer.

My chances of replicating the Flamin’ Hot Fritos, on the other hand, is a lot lower. Not only is the ingredient quite a bit lot longer, but I’m not even sure where to buy maltodextrin, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Disodium Phosphate, Inosinate, or Guanylate—much less how to use them in a recipe. I also don’t have an extruder or deep-fryer.

I realize that the definition of ultra-processed is starting to sound a little bit Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity: You know it when you see it.  But keep in mind that even ultra- (one might even say obscenely-) processed foods, are only harmful when they lead you to consume more calories than you need (or more sugar or sodium than you can tolerate), or if they cause you to neglect the foods that you need to meet your nutritional needs.

If you can enjoy them in moderation, you can safely include ultra-processed foods as a small part of a healthy diet. But be forewarned: most people find it challenging to do that—these foods have literally been engineered to be irresistible.

You may find it a bit easier to exercise some restraint and moderation if you stick to those somewhat less processed, “healthier” treats. And that—and not the stray flaxseed or extra gram of fiber—may be the most potent health advantage of these healthy snacks.

So, in addition to the three questions that can help you determine whether a food fits into a healthy diet, here are two further questions that might help you determine whether a food is too processed:

  • Is it difficult for you to enjoy this food in moderation?
  • Would it possible to make something similar to this food using ingredients and equipment available to a home cook?

And finally with all of that in mind, here are my personal snack rules.

Nutrition Diva’s Rules for Snacking

1. Choose the healthiest version that will truly be enjoyable for you.

If you like the flaxseed or quinoa tortilla chips, or the chips that are baked instead of fried, or the whole grain crackers, go for it! But if they taste like cardboard to you, why bother?

2. Don’t increase the quantity just because it’s healthy.

Healthy snacks still need to fit into your daily budget for calories, sodium, sugar, and so on.

3. Eat snacks in addition to healthy foods, not instead of them.

But if you like, you can count crackers and other grain-based snacks toward your daily servings of grains.

4. Choose snacks that lie closer to the minimally processed end of the spectrum.

They may (or may not) be lower in calories or sugar or sodium. But it will likely be easier to enjoy them in moderation.



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