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How to choose the best healthy snacks

Judith Wills / 17 April 2018 ( 11 January 2022 )

Judith Wills examines our love of snack foods and shares her tips for choosing the best healthy snacks.

Trail mix
Trail mix is an ideal healthy snack

We in the UK just love our little or not-so-little bags of fatty, salty or sugary snacks such as crisps, nuts and biscuits. For example - we're the largest market for savoury snacks in Europe and each one of us buys around 3.6kg of the stuff a year.

If you're looking to eat more healthily or count calories, perhaps for weight loss, try these ideas for sweet, savoury and filling snacks to make at home or carry about.

Should we snack?

Do we actually need snacks? One school of thought says the way to slimness and health is never to eat between meals, while other experts say grazing on small meals is a great idea both for the digestive system and your waistline. The truth is yet to be proven but it may be somewhere in between these opposing views.

I believe there's a case for a snack for all of us, now and then. If you feel really hungry and it's a long time until your next planned meal, then go ahead. If you've such a busy day you've no time for a proper lunch, then snack away. But try to make it a healthy snack with a purpose!

The ideal snack should fit the occasion, should satisfy hunger without overloading us, should be easy to eat, and tread a fine line, helping us feel it's a treat without being too guilt-inducing.

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How to choose healthy snacks

The trick is to load your snacks with positives such as protein, fibre, vitamins and moderate calories only (unless, of course, you've just finished a marathon in which case you can more or less snack on what you like) and stamp out the negatives (salt, sugar, trans fats, huge amounts of total fat).

Choosing a snack which contains a good balance of carb, protein and fat is important, especially if the snack is small and your blood sugar level is low (this may be the case if you feel light-headed, tired, unable to concentrate or craving something sweet).

The carbohydrates will be quickly absorbed in the digestive system and boost your blood sugar, while the fat and protein provide longer-lasting energy and satiety and help moderate the rapid post-snack blood sugar drop effect of too much carb on its own. If the snack also contains plenty of fibre, which also helps slow absorption, as well as some useful vitamins and minerals, then so much the better.

The most popular manufactured snacks that don't meet this ideal:

  • Crisps are usually high in fat but low in protein and fibre, and often have a high salt content and few vitamins or minerals.
  • Nuts are better, containing fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, but usually come laden with salt or sugary coatings. 
  • Plain or lightly salted popcorn is low in fat and calories with a bit of fibre but has very little protein, vitamins or minerals, and won't keep hunger at bay for long.
  • Biscuits, muffins, flapjacks, pork pies and similar are stuffed with sugar/salt/bad fats etc and so many calories you could have had a proper meal or two for the same amount.

But what about more natural snacks? Fruit on its own doesn't make a truly ideal snack as it lacks protein and is high in sugar, meaning it could have a similar effect to a bag of sweets – leaving you feeling hungry again soon after.

Particular culprits are fruits high on the Glycaemic Index, such as watermelon, ripe bananas and pineapple. All fruit is best eaten with something else, such as a piece of cheese or a few unsalted nuts.

Yes – this snack business is a bit of a minefield.

Very quick healthy snacks

These healthy snacks are great when you are on the go, the perfect handbag snacks you can take with you to work or when you are out and about.

  • A handful of any unsalted nuts – such as almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts and pistachios, all of which contain good fats, protein, a range of vitamins and minerals. Read about the health benefits of nuts here.
  • A handful of any seeds – pumpkin seeds or pine nuts are ideal and rich in immune-boosting zinc.
  • Add a small apple to either of the above for some vitamin C and a small sugar hit which is moderated by the high-fat, protein-rich, low-sugar nuts/seeds.

Healthy savoury snacks

These healthy savoury snacks are perfect for when you are in the grazing mood at home and want to raid the fridge and cupboards.

Rye crispbread, celery and peanut butter 

A rye crispbread or celery stick topped with crunchy peanut butter or cashew nut butter (choose unsalted/unsugared type) and sliced cucumber is very satisfying, can reduce LDL cholesterol and is rich in B vitamins.

Oatcakes topped with quark

Two thin round oatcakes topped with the soft cheese, quark, which is similar to cottage cheese, and a dash of mango chutney – great taste and ideal for wheat-avoiders.

Hard boiled egg

Recently pardoned after years in the nutritional wilderness, an egg, hard boiled and dipped in celery salt, is a carb-haters' dream snack and will keep hunger at bay for hours for less than 100 calories.

Dressed avocado

A retro avocado – halve, stone, fill centre with French dressing, eat – is the world's most delicious source of good fats and vitamin E.

Baked beans

Cold baked beans in tomato sauce. Yes, if you're desperate and have little in the fridge, a few spoonfuls of these can be a lifesaver. If they're the reduced salt and sugar kind, so much the better… and at the moment they even count towards your five a day.

Cold roast chicken

A hunk of leftover cold roast chicken (get the skin off, you don't want it). The high protein content and savoury flavour will keep you satisfied for ages.

Cold boiled potatoes

A few leftover new potatoes with their skins on. When cold their high starch content converts largely to 'resistant starch', a type of starch that's absorbed much more slowly than its poor cousin and keeps you full for longer.

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Healthy filling snacks

These mini-meal snacks are for when you just don't have the time to prepare a healthy meal but want something more substantial and filling.

Hummus with crudités  

Ready-made reduced fat hummus with 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil and a dash of lemon juice squeezed in (or if you've a can of cannellini beans and a bit more time, drain and puree the beans with the oil and lemon plus seasoning and make your own bean puree) eaten with crudités and a couple of breadsticks. It has a great protein/carb/fat ratio.

Cold wholewheat pasta

3-4 tablespoons leftover cold wholewheat pasta shapes tossed with chopped fresh tomato and with some grated Cheddar over the top. Resistant starch, fat, protein, vitamin C – what more to ask for?

Soup with pulses

A bowl of ready made chilled-counter soup can be fine, depending on your choice. One that combines pulses such as lentils or kidney beans for protein with plenty of vegetables for fibre and filling power would be good. Many of these soups come in at less than 150 calories a 300ml portion.

Healthy sweet snacks

Satisfy a sweet tooth by mixing sweet snacks with beneficial foods such as yoghurt and unsalted nuts.

Trail mix

You could make your own trail mix, which is often very high in sugar. For 4 x 25g portions, combine 40g unsalted nuts of your choice with 20g unsalted seeds, 10g each raisins or goji berries and chopped dried apricot, 10g dried shaved coconut, a pinch of ground ginger or cinnamon, and 10g cacao nibs (like dark chocolate but even more healthy).

Dark chocolate

Nothing wrong with a few squares of 70%+ dark chocolate though. It's high in fibre and antioxidants, can improve your LDL/HDL cholesterol ratio, is packed with iron and will soon have you feeling full, while the sat fat and sugar content is lower than you might imagine.

Yoghurt with berries

Small pot of natural wholemilk yoghurt with a few berries stirred in. Forget low-fat yogurt, whole is best.

Dried apricots

A couple of pieces ready-to-eat dried apricot – try to buy unsulphured type - and a dried fig (both very high in fibre to reduce their Glycaemic Index and therefore the potential blood-spiking effect of the sugars they contain, and iron).

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.