Harvard Heart Letter

Revamp your snacking habits

Ditch the low-fat chips and pretzels in favor of snacks that contain a combination of whole or minimally processed foods.

heart healthy snacks
Image: iStock

If late afternoon hunger pangs leave you longing for a snack, there's no reason to deny yourself. Just be sure to choose foods that fit into a heart-healthy eating pattern.

"Snacks help bridge the gap between meals," says Liz Moore, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A small snack in the afternoon curbs your appetite so you're not completely starving when you sit down to dinner, she explains. That can help you control your portion sizes and avoid overeating—a common cause of weight gain. "If you eat lunch at noon and are planning to meet a friend for dinner at 7 or 8 p.m., have a snack between 4 and 5 p.m.," she suggests.

Healthy snack suggestions

When choosing snacks, select whole foods with little processing, and look for the healthiest sources of fats, carbs, and protein. For example:

  • 8 ounces plain Greek yogurt with fresh or frozen berries and a sprinkle of granola

  • 1½ ounces trail mix with dried cherries, dark chocolate, and walnuts

  • ¼ cup hummus with 1 cup fresh vegetables, such as baby carrots, broccoli florets, and cherry tomatoes

  • 1 slice whole-grain flatbread with 1 tablespoon almond butter and 1 teaspoon fruit spread

  • 1 banana, sliced and spread with 1 tablespoon peanut butter

  • 1 cup of cooked oatmeal with a dusting of cinnamon, 1 tablespoon raisins, and ½ cup low-fat milk or soy milk

  • Low-fat string cheese with an apple or small bunch of grapes

  • 1 cup edamame* in the shell

*Edamame are soybeans that are harvested while they are still green. Look in the freezer section for unsalted, precooked edamame, either as whole pods or shelled. Once thawed, squeeze the pod to release the beans, which you can eat as a snack or add to salads or other recipes.

Smarter snack choices

Most health-conscious people steer clear of junk food like salty, greasy chips. But they might not realize that low-fat, low-salt potato chips or pretzels aren't really a great substitute. "Those types of snacks usually don't satisfy your hunger because they contain just simple carbohydrates," says Moore. Low-fiber, easily digested carbs found in refined grains tend to raise your blood sugar, which can leave you hungry again in a few hours.

The most healthful snacks contain a combination of healthy proteins, carbs, and fats. Think whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese or peanut butter (see "Healthy snack suggestions" for more ideas). A small serving of leftovers—like stir-fried vegetables, tuna salad, or soup—also makes a good snack, says Moore.

Make your own

If you crave something crunchy, popcorn can be a good choice, provided you avoid prepackaged popcorn in bags or microwave popcorn, which often contains lots of salt and unhealthy fats. It's easy and far cheaper to make your own. Just toss a small handful of popcorn kernels into a small paper bag, fold over the top, and place in the microwave. Use the "popcorn" setting if your microwave has one, or cook on high for two to three minutes, or until the popping slows to a few seconds between pops. (Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't scorch or burn.)

Instead of butter, you can spray the cooked kernels with a little olive oil, using an oil mister, says Moore. "You can also sprinkle on herbs, spices, or a little grated Parmesan cheese," she says. (For a different, higher-protein snack idea, see "Spicy roasted chickpeas.")

If you have a sweet tooth, savor your favorite treat in moderation—like a small square of dark chocolate. If you love ice cream, have a kid-size cone once in a while as a treat.

Spicy roasted chickpeas

smart snacking

Try this recipe for an easy, inexpensive snack that's rich in fiber and protein. All you need is a can of chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), a little olive oil, and spices (garlic powder, oregano, chili powder, curry powder, or any others you like).

1. Preheat oven to 375° F.

2. Drain the chickpeas in a colander or strainer and rinse under running water.

3. Spread the chickpeas on a large baking sheet.

4. Drizzle with about one tablespoon of olive oil and stir to coat evenly.

5. Sprinkle with your choice of spices.

6. Roast for 15 to 30 minutes, to desired crispness.

7. Store at room temperature in a resealable bag or container.