Too many snack foods are low in nutrients and high in calories from sugar, fat or both. Eating too many of these extras often becomes nothing more than consumption of empty calories.
According to a study conducted at the University of California-Berkley, sweets, chips and sugary sodas account for nearly one-third of the calories consumed by Americans. Gladys Block, professor of epidemiology and public health nutrition at the University of California-Berkeley, notes, "It’s important to emphasize that sweets, desserts, snacks and alcohol are contributing calories without providing vitamins and minerals. In contrast, such healthy foods as vegetables and fruit make up only 10 percent of the caloric intake in the U.S. diet. A large proportion of Americans are undernourished in terms of vitamins and minerals. You can actually be obese and still be undernourished with regard to important nutrients. We shouldn’t be telling people to eat less, we should be telling people to eat differently."
We all enjoy having extras or treats, but the problem is how much and how often. The newly revised Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting discretionary calories, which are calories left in your calorie allowance after meeting your nutrient needs. (To compute your calorie allowance, go to www.mypyramid.gov.) The bad news is that most of us don’t keep close enough track of what our calorie allowance is, and an extra 100 calories per day can result in a weight gain of 10 pounds in one year. It’s easy to exceed our discretionary allowance when the average calories in a serving of soda, beer, wine, candy bar or chips exceed 100 calories.
Since going cold turkey and totally eliminating the extras isn’t realistic for most of us, here are a few ideas of how to make gradual changes that may start you down a new path of better nutrition.
– Limit how often and how much extras are eaten. If you pack your lunch, include only one small treat. Eat your fun food only once a day – perhaps for a morning or afternoon snack. Candy bars come in a "fun size," which average around 40 calories. Sodas are available in 8 oz. cans for 100 calories. Share a dessert when you eat out.
– Reduce temptations. Even though the economy size bag of chips is a good deal for your wallet, it’s not necessarily the case for your waistline if you can’t control how much you eat. Buy the small single-size packages instead. Minimize the amount of extras kept in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer.
– Look for healthier choices that are similar to the high-calorie options. If you like salty snacks, choose pretzels or popcorn over chips. Try a cup of hot cocoa made with nonfat milk if you want chocolate. If you crave ice cream, look for lower fat alternatives to the high-fat options. Keep your favorite fresh crunchy veggies on hand, washed, ready-to-go and, most importantly, visible in the refrigerator to satisfy that urge to crunch.
– Do something physical to take you away from food temptations. Take a walk. Weed the garden. Clean out a closet. Organize a drawer.
Changing one’s diet and snack habits takes time. A variety of benefits over time are likely to occur, including better sleeping patterns, less indigestion, less irritability, increased stamina and even weight loss for some.
Don’t be surprised if you find you have less interest in returning to your former eating style. Healthy habits can make you feel great!
Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D., Cooperative Extension Specialist
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University