Popcorn, Peanuts, and Pretzels: Healthy Snacks or Harmful Nibbles?

How do you define a healthy snack? Low-fat? Low-calorie? Low-carb? Foods that fit into those categories may be good choices, but a better approach might be to choose snacks that are also high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Snacks are healthy when they fill in any nutritional gaps in your diet without adding excess calories. That's why the best snacks incorporate some of the same nutrient-rich, fiber-filled foods you normally eat in a full, healthy meal. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains all fit the bill. Think apple slices, dried fruit, crudités, bean dips, yogurt, and crisp rye crackers. And unless you're drinking fruit juice, vegetable juice, milk, or a smoothie, wash your snacks down with a big glass of water.

If you're hungry and don't have the time to prepare a better snack, there's nothing unhealthy about grabbing just a few pretzels or peanuts or a handful of popcorn to tide you over until you can sit down to eat a full meal. There's nothing to feel guilty about unless you overdo it.  But as a rule, it's best to plan your snacks as mini-meals, so that every time you eat, whether it's a big meal or small, you are getting a balance of different nutrients from different food groups.

For instance, if you like peanuts, or other nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, or cashews, keep them on hand for snacking. But instead of just grabbing a big handful of nuts every time you feel hungry (or bored), combine a spoonful of chopped nuts with a bit of cut-up dried fruit and a small serving of yogurt. You'll not only get a wider variety of nutrients from a well-balanced snack, you'll help keep your blood sugar balanced.

A bowl of low-fat or fat-free popcorn will provide a good amount of fiber, but not much else. Again, the smartest way to go is to combine popcorn in a snack that includes other foods. For instance, enjoy a cup of popcorn along with a few cherry tomatoes and a spoonful of raw almonds.

Pretzels are virtually fat-free but unless they're made from whole-grain flour, they don't have much else to offer. A regular pretzel is too low in fiber and essential nutrients to recommend as a healthy snack. Look for pretzels made with spelt flour (a form of whole-wheat flour) or oat bran, and enjoy them as a snack with low-sodium vegetable juice and an ounce of reduced fat cheese.

The National Institutes of Health's guidelines for healthy snacking include a recommendation to keep snacks around 100 calories. A tablespoon of peanuts provides 52 calories, 2 large pretzel twists provide 45 calories, and 1 cup of air-popped popcorn contains about 30 calories. That gives you an idea of just how much (or how little) food represents a healthy snack.



National Institutes of Health/MedlinePlus: Snacks for Adults

University of Illinois: NAT (Nutrition Analysis Tool)