Mindless snacking can be a real physique wrecker.
It can add unwanted calories and processed fats and sugars to your day, often without you even remembering you’ve eaten it.
However, not all snacking is bad.
In fact, some healthy snacks can make for great on-the-go fuel. They can increase your healthy fat intake, provide additional protein to fuel muscle growth, or be a source of healthy carbs to support your workouts.
Here we break down the best healthy snacks you should have on-hand and how they can benefit both your physique and your health.
When we think of snacking, we often think of unhealthy, calorie-dense processed food like cookies, candy, or cakes. But, for many bodybuilders and athletes, snacking can be a great way to reach their caloric needs using healthy options.
The average person often snacks on unhealthy foods due to factors such as hunger, social events, boredom, or appetite. When many people see tasty food, they just eat it because it looks good, without considering the content.
Research has shown that those who are overweight tend to snack because of temptation and accessibility (being continually surrounded with highly satiating less-healthy foods)2. These factors have made snacking one of the key ways people consume empty calories and gain weight.
While most people often feel satiated after a full meal, snacking often fails to signal your hunger hormones or brain that you’ve consumed the calories. This means that you continue to snack until you feel full, and then likely still eat your normal meals. When these two factors are added up over the course of a week, it can equal a lot of extra calories.
Another health issue with unhealthy snacking is that it stimulates insulin levels1. When this occurs daily, it can mean that insulin is continually elevated throughout the day, as it gets spiked from your main meals plus the snacks in-between. High insulin levels can lead to extra fat gain and damage our cells. Long term, this is a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.
However, while unhealthy snacking can lead to a gain in body fat, healthy and strategic snacking can be beneficial, especially if you are a ‘hard gainer’, an athlete with high caloric needs, or are focusing on adding muscle mass. Here are some healthy snacks ideas you should include.
Nuts are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, being an important source of healthy fats, fiber, and minerals. While they may seem calorie dense, they can be suitable for those trying to lose weight as well, with some research showing those who ate nuts as a snack lost more weight than those who did not5.
Some of the best nuts include:
- Brazil nuts
Along with being very high in monounsaturated fat, which can promote healthy cholesterol levels and brain function, they are also high in vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and selenium. Plus, nuts are an easy food to carry with you while you run errands – just be sure to weigh out your portion as they can add up quickly in calories from fat!
2. Beef Jerky
Beef jerky is another staple snack for the bodybuilder. Convenient and rich in high-quality protein, beef jerky is chock full of the essential amino acids you need to build muscle and recover.
If you pick a natural source of beef jerky, without added sugar, it is a healthy and low-calorie snack. It also contains vital minerals and nutrients such as omega-3 fats, CLA, and zinc. Where possible, you should aim to consume beef jerky that is free from nitrates and MSG.
An average serving will contain around 70-80 calories, 1g fat, 0-3g carbs, 0g fiber, 0-2g sugar, and 12g protein. Look for options with the lowest sugar content (often those without a lot of added flavoring), as this will keep the carb count lower.
Fruit is another great go-to snack used by all populations, from office workers to elite athletes.
There are obviously many types of fruit, all of which will provide different health benefits, nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants. For this reason, many authorities and experts recommend you rotate the fruit sources, allowing you to get a mix of antioxidants and nutrients.
For weight loss, some of the lowest calorie fruits include raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, and melon.
For weight gain or energy, reach for fruits like banana, mango, pineapple, and dried fruit options. These varieties are higher in sugar, making them great snacks to have around your workout when higher insulin levels can be beneficial.
Yogurt is another perfect snack when you are on the move and need to provide some slow-digesting protein to keep your muscles growing until your next meal.
There are obviously better and worse choices you can make when it comes to purchasing yogurt. Some varieties are incredibly high in sugar and fat, and low in protein. However, if you avoid these, and chose a natural, high protein yogurt, they can be incredibly healthy, full of casein protein, calcium, and gut-friendly bacteria.
Some of the best brands include Fage Total, Danone Light & Fit, and Yoplait Greek. If you find the tartness of Greek yogurt unpleasant, you can try flavoring it with a little bit of protein powder, cinnamon, or some Stevia.
On average, one cup of unflavored and unsweetened yogurt will contain around 25g protein, 10g carb, and 0g fat, if you pick the fat-free variety. If you’re eating to gain muscle, the full-fat version is still incredibly healthy.
5. Cuts of Meat & Other Protein Sources
Protein is a key nutrient for athletes. If you’re struggling to add muscle mass, recover maximally, or just hit your daily protein needs, adding one or two high-protein snacks per day can make all the difference.
Try adding one of these convenient high-protein snacks into your daily mix:
- Low-fat cheese
- Lean cuts of meat
- Beef jerky
- High-protein yogurt
- Whey protein such as RE-KAGED
- Casein protein such as KASEIN
- Protein bars (keep an eye on the fat and carb content)
Snacking can either be bad or good—it all depends on what foods you eat and how it fits into your daily regime. If you’re trying to lose fat, or you start gaining body fat, remove snacks altogether and stick to your regular meals, or re-work your meal plan to include snacks with some of the lean protein sources listed above.
In contrast, if you’re struggling to gain weight and get your daily calories in, then adding a couple of high protein snacks with a high-fat source such as nuts or avocado can easily boost your intake and provide your body with the calories it needs to lay down new muscle.
When snacking, use the snacks recommended above and avoid the less-healthy, processed snacks to meet your needs. Always consider your long-term goal when you reach for a snack to make it the most optimal.
- Sclafani, A. (1987). Carbohydrate taste, appetite, and obesity: An overview. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 11(2), 131-153.
- Nijs, I. M., Muris, P., Euser, A. S., & Franken, I. H. (2010). Differences in attention to food and food intake between overweight/obese and normal-weight females under conditions of hunger and satiety. Appetite, 54(2), 243-254.
- Davis, C., Patte, K., Levitan, R., Reid, C., Tweed, S., & Curtis, C. (2007). From motivation to behaviour: a model of reward sensitivity, overeating, and food preferences in the risk profile for obesity. Appetite, 48(1), 12-19.
- Canetti, L., Bachar, E., & Berry, E. M. (2002). Food and emotion. Behavioural processes, 60(2), 157-164.
- St-Onge, M. P. (2005). Dietary fats, teas, dairy, and nuts: potential functional foods for weight control?. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 81(1), 7-15.
- Fraser, G. E., Bennett, H. W., Jaceldo, K. B., & Sabaté, J. (2002). Effect on body weight of a free 76 kilojoule (320 calorie) daily supplement of almonds for six months. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 21(3), 275-283.
- Li, Z., Song, R., Nguyen, C., Zerlin, A., Karp, H., Naowamondhol, K., ... & Henning, S. M. (2010). Pistachio nuts reduce triglycerides and body weight by comparison to refined carbohydrate snack in obese subjects on a 12-week weight loss program. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 29(3), 198-203.