You probably think of your afternoon snack as an indulgence, one that adds pounds, not benefits. But not if you make smart choices. Studies suggest that some between-meal bites may actually extend your life and help you maintain a healthy weight.
For most people, snacking contributes about 25 percent of your daily calories. That's why you want to make every bite count. A study from Auburn University in Alabama found that older adults who snacked twice per day got 18 percent more vitamin C, 16 percent more beta carotene, and 10 percent more vitamin E than those who didn't. They also got slightly more magnesium and potassium.
What makes a healthy snack? Small portions of nutrient-packed, unprocessed foods. Allow yourself two snacks per day. Each should include at least two food groups and have 150 to 200 calories. Consumer Reports' food experts say a 6-ounce container of low-fat yogurt with 20 grams or less of sugars is a good choice, and it's packed with calcium.
Researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found that women who had yogurt with 14 grams of protein as an afternoon snack consumed about 100 fewer calories at dinner than they did when they snacked on chocolate or crackers.
Another healthy snack idea: an ounce of nuts with fruit. It has a satisfying combination of fat and protein, and a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who ate an ounce of nuts per day cut their risk of dying from heart disease by almost 30 percent and cancer by 11 percent. You can also think of snacks as mini-meals, such as low-sodium vegetable soup or half a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread.
Looking for something more portable? Try a low-fat string cheese and a piece of fruit. Snack bars are fine, too, if you choose carefully. "In our tests, we found that bars can be placed in two camps—those made with highly processed ingredients and those that are made with real foods," says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports' dietitian.
Multiple sugars on the ingredients list—such as high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, or fruit juice concentrate—mean that the bar's sweetness comes primarily from added sugars, not dried fruit. The fat is usually unsaturated, mostly from nuts, but check that the saturated fat grams make up less than half of the total fat grams. And avoid bars with partially hydrogenated oil, a signal that the product contains unhealthy trans fats.
This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.