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The Secrets of Snacking Success

Illustration: Sarah Wilkins
It can work for your diet—or it can get out of hand. Here's the skinny.

A well-timed and well-chosen snack can be the best thing for a dieter's needs—whether physical ("I'm going to chew my arm off if I don't eat something right now") or mental ("I shouldn't have to deprive myself"). Yet you may be reluctant to snack because it "steals" calories from the main meals.

"By 'legalizing' snacks as part of your eating routine, you won't feel like you've derailed your diet," says Lisa Young, PhD, RD, author of The Portion Teller Plan. Look for foods with staying power. That means a balance of whole grains, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. That's right: fats. Fats satiate and help to deliver certain flavors to the palate. Top high-flavor snack choices include smoked almonds, edamame, Greek yogurt, and sugar snap peas dunked in hummus. Cooking Light Food Editor and Social Diet participant Ann Pittman found that one of her favorite choices is a hard-cooked egg dipped in smoked salt, which she orders online.

Timing is also important. Snacking should be mindful. Avoid automatic eating, regardless of hunger levels, but avoid waiting too long so that you avoid the trap of "hangry" overindulging.

"Use hunger cues, but don't let yourself get to the famished point," Young says. If you're headed to the gym after work but not yet hungry, it's OK to skip a preworkout snack; just don't postpone dinner until 9 p.m.

The challenge here is that, while snacks are essential in dieting, they can also send calorie counts reeling. To keep things in check, first make sure your breakfast, lunch, and dinner are filling and satisfying. Then plan ahead and make or buy preportioned options so you don't fall face-first into an oversize chip bag or give in to a mega-muffin temptation at coffee break.

Regardless of what you reach for, the key is to find foods that meet your flavor needs. "I had to come to peace with the fact that I'm just not a yogurt girl," says Pittman. "I want a snack that's salty and savory. It's about what works for me in my diet."