Americans are serial snackers. In fact, researchers say snacks account for an extra 580 extra calories per day in our diets.
We love snacks so much, in fact, that more than half the country uses them as a meal replacement, according to a recent Nielsen report — and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Healthy snacks — especially high-protein, afternoon munchies — can curb appetite, improve diet quality and speed up weight loss, recent studies suggest. But the wrong snacks can pack on the pounds faster than you can rip open a bag of Doritos. And there’s the rub.
Finding a good-for-you mini-meal isn’t easy because, in the American food jungle, chips are the most popular snack food (followed by chocolate, cheese and cookies). So, to simplify the selection process, here’s a list of the worst “healthy” snacks for weight loss, and the damage control tips you need to stay on track.
Plain Rice Cakes
Rice cakes are an old-school diet staple. But the simple carbohydrates rank notoriously high on the glycemic index (GI) — a measure of how quickly blood rises in response to food on a scale of one to 100 (rice cakes come in at 82). High GI foods provide a rush of energy, but can leave you hungry within a few hours. Researchers at the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center found high-GI snacks caused excessive hunger and increased activity in craving and reward area of the brain — the perfect storm for overeating and weight gain.
Adding healthy fats or protein to a meal lowers its glycemic load. Swap a two cake mini-meal for one rice cake topped with a generous swipe of nut butter. The combo will keep you fuller for longer and has the added benefit of being a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.
Dark Chocolate Chips
Surely a few chocolate chips will satisfy your sweet tooth, right? Researchers aren’t so confident; people consume an average 41% more calories when snacking on unwrapped snacks, one study published in the journal Appetite showed. Researchers say peeling off a wrapper, or cracking the shell of a nut slows us down, which gives the body more time to send out “I’m full” signals. And the mounting pile of candy wrappers and nut shells serves as a visual reminder as to just how much we’ve eaten.
Remember that “just a bite” still has calories, and we usually don’t stop at just one bite. While high-quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) is the most waist-friendly choco choice, you may want to stick with a small portion of wrapped varieties over “hand to mouth” chocolate chips.
Sure, nuts are delicious and good for you. But when they’re coated in a layer of sugary syrup, they’re doing nut’n for your waistline. Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts contain 7 grams of added sugars per serving — which is 7 grams more sugar than you’d be eating if you chose an unflavored variety.
If you want some flavor on your nuts, opt for spices like cinnamon or cayenne. As for which type of nut, opt for in-shell varieties. Named “The Pistachio Effect,” research shows the act of shelling nuts can slow you down and give your body a chance to register fullness 86 calories sooner than you would otherwise.
For some people, eating gluten-free is a necessity. But for those who think “gluten-free” means weight loss-friendly, beware the health halo. A pretzel offers very little in the nutrition department — gluten-free, organic, or otherwise — and it’s easy to fall for the claims. In a recent study, people estimated snacks labeled “organic” to be lower in calories, more nutritious and even tastier than when reviewing the same snacks without the “organic” label. Moreover, processed gluten-free snacks are typically higher in carbohydrates and fats than regular varieties. Gluten-free Glutino pretzels, for example, have an additional 30 calories, five grams of fat and none of the fiber and protein of an equivalent portion of regular Rold Gold variety.
Don’t get it twisted: Pretzels are little more than flour and salt. Satisfy your salty, crunchy craving with a big bowl of air-popped popcorn instead. Three cups of the naturally gluten-free snack clock in at only 90 calories and count as a serving of waist-whittling whole grains.
Reaching for a portion-controlled packet of crackers or cookies may sound like a good snack strategy for weight loss, but the mini-packs may fill you out before they fill you up, research suggests. In fact, dieters perceived small snacks in small packages as diet-friendly and ended up eating multiple packets and more calories overall than when given a regular-size package, a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found.
When dieting, you’re better off serving yourself a small portion from a regular-sized bag than falling for the allure of a minipack, study authors suggest.
A fruit smoothie sounds like a virtuous choice for an afternoon pick-me-up, but be forewarned: Many store-bought options are blended with high-calorie dairy bases and cheap sweeteners that make them more dessert-like than diet-friendly. A small Baskin Robbins Mango Banana Smoothie packs 440 calories, nearly a third of what the average woman on a 1500-calorie weight loss diet needs in an entire day. Not to mention 96 grams of sugar — that’s more than you’ll find in 7 scoops of the chain’s Rainbow Sherbet. Adding insult to injury, banana doesn’t feature once on the ingredients list.
If you’re hankering for something sweet and fruity, nothing beats a whole piece (or two!) of the real thing. In fact, a recent study in the journal Nature found liquid carbohydrates to be 17 percent less filling compared with solid carbohydrates. As a general rule: eat, don’t drink, your fruits. And if it’s creamy that you’re craving, pair your fruit with a cup of low-fat plain cottage cheese or yogurt. A recent study found high-protein snacks eaten in the afternoon can improve appetite control and diet quality.
What happens when you take a bowl of oats, drown them in oil, cover them with sugar, bake them on a cookie tray? You get your average granola: highly delicious, highly caloric, highly likely to put you over your daily calorie budget in just one serving — and chances are you’ll munch through far more than a scant half-cup that makes up a single serving. In fact, a recent study found people served themselves the same volume of cereal regardless of caloric value. In other words, you’re likely to pour the same amount of granola into a bowl as you would corn flakes, and consume five times the calories in the process.
A big bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh fruit will fill you up for a fraction of the calories and fat as a small portion of energy-dense granola. In fact, a recent study found oatmeal to be the most satisfying breakfast in the cereal aisle—leading to greater and longer lasting feelings of fullness than ready-to-eat cereal.
The “healthy” alternative to chips are just another processed food. Their bag might display photos of whole veggies, but these chips are actually pulverized vegetable flour mixed with oil and salt. You can do better.
Keep a bag of edamame in the freezer and defrost individual portions for an ever-ready snack, snack on baby carrots, or get a fix of crunch and protein from two tablespoons of peanut butter on wheat crackers.
One of the great health food imposters, bran muffins are simply excuses to get you to eat cupcakes for breakfast. Each can deliver about 440 calories, with nearly a quarter of them coming from fat. Also avoid the scones: The rich, flaky taste comes from gobs of butter, flour and sugar, adding up to 500 calories a pop.
An egg and cheese sandwich usually comes in under 400 calories no matter where you go, as long as it’s not on a bagel. Plus, the protein hit helps temper your appetite as the day wears on.
Filled with satiating nuts and bits of fiber-filled fruit, trail mix has to be far healthier than chips and pretzels, right? Not so much. Most trail mixes are loaded with salt, and the dried fruit pieces are essentially sugar dusted with sugar. In fact, Target’s bag of Market Pantry Trail Mix has 15 grams of the sweet stuff!
Go for a handful of walnuts or almonds, or use our exclusive guide on How to Make the Perfect Trail Mix!
Would you refuel with a Snickers after a workout? That’s exactly what you’re doing when you reach for many protein bars — with their laundry list of ingredients, sugars and preservatives, and up to 350 calories per, you’d be better off eating candy.
Make yourself one of these 23 Best Protein Shake Recipes for Weight Loss!
Packed with satiating, muscle-building protein and belly-beneficial probiotics, yogurt is an excellent weight loss food. But don’t be fooled by its telenovela-style evil twin: Flavored yogurt, a scourge of sugary fruit. For example, Noosa has 32 grams of sugar in their 8-ounce tub — more than eight Dunkin’ Donuts Sugared Donuts!
Opt for plain, 2% or full-fat yogurt and add some fresh berries. (Fat-free or low-fat versions are skimmed of nutrients.) Pick one of these 25 Best Yogurts for Weight Loss!
In moderation, dried fruit can be a healthy, fiber-filled snack or salad topping, but in many cases, it might as well be candy. Not only is the sugar more concentrated in dried fruits than fresh, manufacturers often coat dried fruit in more sugar.
Fresh fruit really isn’t that inconvenient to carry around. The only good thing about Craisins is the color. Look for this crimson characteristic to ensure you’re buying the Best Fruits for Fat Loss.
These wafer-thin waist-wideners deserve a bad rap. While most slices of bread top out around 100 calories, many wraps have two or three times that amount. Plus: In order for the tortilla to stay flexible, manufactures add fat, often in the form of soybean oil and hydrogenated oils.
Make yourself a sandwich with one of these Best Breads for Weight Loss. Just stay away from the processed deli meats—they’re full of harmful salt and cancer-causing preservatives.
Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
There are a few nevers in life: Never wear two kinds of plaid at the same time, never say “I love you” on the first date, and never eat reduced-fat peanut butter. When peanut-butter makers removed the naturally occurring, healthy fats from peanuts, they replaced them with sugar, corn, syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, which researchers to found increase heart disease risk by a whopping 23 percent. And if that weren’t enough, it usually has the same number of calories as regular peanut butter.
Stick with regular, heart-healthy peanut butter and almond butter. Our favorite peanut butter is Smucker’s Natural variety, made with just peanuts and a touch of salt.
Chocolate Hazelnut Spreads
How did peanut butter get such a bad reputation? The low-fat craze of the ’90s is to blame, and it caused so much delusion that somehow this hazelnut spread was considered a superior option. In reality, it contains sugar as the first ingredient, plus vegetable oil, an emulsifier, and “reduced fat cocoa powder.”
Pick one of these Best Nut Butters for Weight Loss instead!
Sweet Potato Chips
We’re sorry to break this to you, but veggie chips are just as bad, if not worse, than potato chips. (And in a recent study, potato chips were ranked the worst food for weight gain out of all the foods that exist on the planet!) One serving of Terra Sweet Potato Chips has more calories, fat and saturated fat as a serving of Cape Cod Potato Chips. Though we like other products from their line, don’t assume it’s healthier just because the shade of potato is different.
Try one of our 10 Best Chip Alternatives for Weight Loss!
Not only have artificial sweeteners actually been linked to weight gain — they trick the body into desiring additional carbs — foods labeled as sugar-free can actually contain sugar! Technically, they can include up to 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
If you’re craving something sweet, skip “sugar-free” options and eat what you’re really craving in moderation.