When you feel the urge to snack, it’s easy to satisfy your cravings with something sweet and salty. A box of cookies or bag of chips quenches that hunger. But with a little creativity and determination, snacking can be a healthy quest that helps keep your blood glucose steady while adding important vitamins and minerals to your diet.
“When we think of snacking, we usually think of it as something unhealthy or a mini-meal,” said registered dietitian Angela Ginn-Meadow, CDE, senior education coordinator at the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology in Baltimore. “The purpose of snacking is to get us from one meal to the next. It shouldn’t be a full-course meal, but a tiny meal that contains carbohydrates and protein.”
Ginn-Meadow, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends following the 80-20 rule for snacking: 80% of snacks should be healthy to maintain your weight and blood glucose levels and 20% can be slight indulgences. “Snacking is driven by both physical and emotional impulses and it’s the mindless snacking that gets us all into trouble,” she added.
In the past, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommended three meals and three snacks a day. Currently, the ADA recognizes that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to eating and therefore recommends three meals a day and allows more flexibility on whether people choose to eat snacks.
Driving past fast food to instead opt for healthy snacks may seem impossible. If you add quick and easy to that list, it can feel downright overwhelming. Where to start? Check with your doctor, dietitian, or CDE to find out how many complex carbohydrates a day is right for you. Generally, consuming 250 grams of complex carbohydrates in a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet will leave you with about 15–30 grams of carbohydrates or 100–200 calories for two snacks each day.
Snacks should include healthy carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, according to dietitian Toby Smithson, CDE, founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com and author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies. “The amount of carbohydrates a person should eat varies, so check your blood glucose levels before and two hours after meals to determine how many carbohydrates you should be eating to best manage your diabetes.”
When looking for snacks that work with your lifestyle, remember both protein and fat help you feel full longer and have minimal effects on blood glucose levels, but they need to be used in moderation — especially fat. Limit saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories, and limit artificial trans fat — commonly found in processed snack foods — to as little as possible.
Look for saturated and trans fats on food labels. Keep in mind that you need to look at the total carbohydrates on the label when choosing foods, not just the grams of sugar. Complex carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and alcohols can all impact blood glucose. How various foods affect blood glucose varies by individual, so always keep an eye on your levels when adding a new snack to your diet.
Many dietitians group snacks into three categories: low-carbohydrate snacks, sustaining snacks, and fast-acting snacks, all with the goal of 15 or so grams of total carbohydrates. Low-carbohydrate snacks are foods that do not need insulin to cover them, such as raw, nonstarchy vegetables with a dip like Italian dressing or yogurt. Sustaining snacks, which are a combination of a carbohydrate source and protein or healthy fat source, are ideal when it will be a while before your next meal and you need something to tide you over. This may include snacks like one tablespoon of almond butter on a whole-grain waffle or one ounce of cheese with a few whole grain crackers.
Fast-acting snacks are appropriate when blood glucose drops too quickly. These still contain 15 grams of carbohydrates but have no fiber, fat, or protein to slow the absorption of the sugar into the blood. If you do not have half a cup of juice handy, six Life Savers or large jelly beans, two tablespoons of raisins, or one tablespoon of straight sugar or honey can be used. Smithson added that “chocolate is not fast-acting enough because it contains too much fat content.”
Nuts are considered a diabetes superfood by the ADA and are a great on-the-go snack. Almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and pistachios are at the top of the nut pyramid for healthy snack options. “The protein and fiber in nuts help fill you up, which may help with portion control,” said dietitian Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, director of diabetes education at the Center for Endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
While providing a satisfying snack as well as nutrients like vitamin E, B vitamins, selenium, and zinc, nuts are higher in fat. Almonds are slightly less caloric than walnuts. A one-ounce serving of whole roasted almonds (about 23 nuts) contains about 138 calories compared to walnuts (about 14 nuts) at about 185 calories.
Adding two ounces of almonds to a diet has been associated with lower levels of fasting insulin and fasting glucose, according to a study published in Metabolism Journal. Study participants reduced their caloric intake to offset the addition of the almonds to their diet so that no extra calories were consumed.
There’s a perception that because walnuts are higher in calories, they may lead to weight gain. Studies have shown that even eating large amounts of walnuts does not cause weight gain. However, no studies show that eating walnuts will help with weight loss.
Pistachios are a particularly nutrient-dense choice. A two-ounce serving of pistachios, for example, has about 12 grams of protein and 11 grams of total carbohydrates, making it a great snack option. “Shelling pistachios also has the added benefit of slowing you down while you snack, which can help you feel fuller while eating less,” noted Massey.
Massey suggests seasoning nuts for added flavor and variety. If you are craving a chocolate fix, mixing chocolate-covered almonds in with regular almonds can help satisfy the chocolate craving without adding too much sugar.
Setting aside some time in the week to prep vegetables so they are always on stand-by in your fridge for when you are feeling famished is a great way to keep yourself from making bad food choices out of hunger. Bell peppers, celery, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, carrots, and radishes are versatile snacks. “These vegetables also last in your fridge for longer so [they are] a wise choice for tight food budgets,” explained Smithson.
Nonstarchy vegetables are a great snack on their own. They are nutrient- and fiber-dense, so they add volume to a snack and keep you feeling fuller longer. Pair vegetables with spreads and dips like low-fat cream cheese, ranch dressing or almond butter to add some flavor.
Edamame is another great plant-based protein-packed snack. Edamame is a rare plant source of complete protein, with a half-cup serving containing over 8 grams of protein, about 8 grams of carbohydrates, and 4 grams of fiber. Edamame can be found in more food stores and in more varieties as its popularity continues to grow around the country. “Dry-roasted edamame in packages, either plain or seasoned, can add variety to your snack lineup as well as frozen, lightly salted edamame,” said Massey.
Dark green leafy greens are highly recommended by the ADA. A great green to incorporate into your snacking routine is kale. While kale is not the most popular leafy green, it does make terrific chips. With more brands and varieties joining the kale chip phenomenon, it’s easier to find options in your food store. A bag of kale chips can be pretty pricey, but there are lots of recipes online for making your own, and you can choose your own seasonings. Like all leafy greens, kale is a reliable source of B vitamins. Kale is also an excellent source of vitamin K, which is critical for cellular reactions, maintenance of bone tissue and blood clotting. One serving of kale chips meets the daily requirement of vitamin K.
Hummus is a tried and true snack that goes well with vegetables and just happens to be great for people with diabetes. It yields 6 grams of dietary fiber and 8 grams of protein per half cup, so you can indulge in the creamy texture while knowing the protein and fiber will help keep your blood glucose well balanced. You can find different hummus flavors as well as single-use containers in the grocery store, making it easy to find variety and not overindulge. Use it as a dip for vegetables, a spread on toasted whole-grain bread or a topping for another chickpea powerhouse, falafel.
The secret to snacking is choosing foods that are not only healthy, but also taste good, said Ginn-Meadow. “Whole-grain crackers alone will not satisfy your hunger from one meal to the next meal, but adding nut butter or low-fat cheese to that wholesomeness will keep you satisfied, and it tastes much better.”
Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Eating Out With Diabetes: Making the Best Menu Choices.”
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