Make sure your between-meals nibbles boost your nutritional bottom line.
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Credit: Bee Johnson

It's 4-o'clock in the afternoon, lunch is a distant memory, and dinner is still a long way off. Do you fall for the siren song of the break room vending machine or tuck into a light, healthful snack? Either way, if you eat between meals, you're part of a bigger trend. Snacking has become the new normal, and according to market research firm Hartman Group, half of the times we eat revolve around snacks, from early-morning nibbles to late-night noshes.

That's just fine, says Cheryl Forberg, RD, nutritionist on The Biggest Loser and author of A Small Guide to Losing Big—as long as you're smart about it. In fact, you should eat snacks, especially if you're trying to lose weight. "A lot of people skip snacks, thinking it's smart weight-loss strategy, and that's a big mistake," she says. "They're just stunned you're telling them to eat more often." In reality, healthful, satisfying bites regulate your appetite, preventing overeating and boosting the overall quality of your diet.

But for many of us, snacks are so incidental that we tend to overlook them—and the calories they add to our daily tally. In a recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volunteers wore cameras to compare what they recalled eating with what they actually ate. Their most underreported item: afternoon snacks.

In addition to being mindful of how snacks may contribute to your daily calorie intake, make sure you're not falling for faux-healthy ones. Trail mix, dried fruit, and flavored fat-free yogurt are three that seem virtuous but can be sugar bombs, says fitness trainer Dalton Wong, author of The Feelgood Plan: Happier, Healthier & Slimmer in 15 Minutes a Day. Packaged snacks may be convenient, but their saturated fat, sugar, and sodium can pile up fast. Keep a close eye on Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists, and choose snacks that offer a satisfying mix of protein, complex carbohydrates, and good-for-you fats. Follow these trips to make sure your choices between meals help, instead of harm, your diet.

3 Ways to Up Your Snack Game

Schedule snacks just as you do meals, Forberg says, so you know what you'll eat and when. She even recommends adding snacks in your calendar so you won't forget. "Once you get into the habit and start doing that, you're going to notice the difference in your energy, and it will change your hunger cues," Forberg says. "You're not going to be as hungry at your next meal, and you won't need as much food to feel full."

Given our grazing ways, it's easy to load up on snacks that are really meals. "Calorie-wise, a snack is half the calories of a meal," Forberg says. Whatever your caloric needs might be, Cooking Light's guidelines recommend keeping snacks below 200 calories, 10g sugar, and 250mg of sodium, and aiming for at least 5g of protein per serving. If it's a starchy-snack, make sure it's a whole grain and has at least 3g of fiber.

Just like meals, snacks should be a satisfying combination of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs. "A lot of people assume that an apple is a great snack. And it is," Forberg says. "But if you're just having fruit, what happens is you get the energy, your blood sugar goes up, and then it drops down and you're hungry and tired again." Add a little protein to the mix, such as a mozzarella cheese stick or a handful of nuts, she says, "and your blood sugar goes up slowly and stays steady longer so your energy is sustained, your satiety is sustained, and your blood sugar is in a healthier place." Good fats also help keep blood sugar in balance, Wong says: "If you want something sweet like chocolate, then have it with some nuts. Having something sweet coupled with a healthy fat will lower the rate of how your body uses the sugar so you don't get a sugar rush or crash."

Having a hard time resisting the chips in the break room or the candy on your coworker's desk? Poor sleep may be to blame. In a recent study in the journal Sleep, volunteers who had their sleep restricted for four nights, reported more hunger and had a harder time resisting junky snacks than those who got adequate rest. "A good night's sleep will allow you to make better food choices throughout the day and avoid that craving for junk food," Wong says. So to snack smarter, make sure to get your z's.