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How to choose the best healthy snacks

Judith Wills / 26 November 2014

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

Plain popcorn is low in fat and calories but has very little protein, vitamins or minerals and will not keep you full.

We in the UK just love our little or not-so-little bags of fatty, salty or sugary snacks such as crisps, nuts, popcorn 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.

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.

How to choose healthy snacks

The trick is to load your snack 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.

For my top ideas for healthy snacks for all occasions click here.

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.