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The #1 Snack You Should Eat This Year (And The Top Snack to Skip)

02/25/2011 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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By Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D., Associate Editor at EatingWell Magazine

Even though I spend most of my day writing about food and health as the associate nutrition editor at EatingWell Magazine, I snack at work…a lot. A yogurt with fruit at 10:00, hot chocolate at 2:00, some nuts at 4:00…you get the drift. Now snacking’s not a bad thing—it can fuel you until your next meal and also can be a great place to get in some food groups you’re missing in your other meals.

But some snacks are better than others: the best snack to eat is one that’s low in calories, high in nutrition and keeps you full longer. The worst is one that’s high in calories, low in nutritional value and leaves you hungry for more.

Of all the possible snack foods out there, popcorn stands out as number 1. Now, popcorn’s gotten a bad rep from the movie-theater variety—loaded with saturated fat and calories thanks to the ginormous portion sizes and “buttery” topping.

But the crunchy kernels hidden beneath are actually a health food. Here’s why:

  1. It’s a whole grain. The term “whole grain” may bring to mind loaves of bread flecked with bran or a bowl of oatmeal, but popcorn also counts. In fact, popcorn eaters get 250% more whole grains in their diet than people who don’t eat popcorn. And like other whole grains, crunchy popcorn is high in fiber (women need 25 grams and men need 38 grams in their diets daily).
  2. Not only is popcorn high in fiber, but it’s also low in fat and delivers some protein. A 1-ounce serving (about 3½ cups) has 4 grams of fiber, almost 4 grams of protein, just over 1 gram of fat and clocks in at 110 calories. This combination makes it a snack with staying power.

  3. Popcorn has antioxidants. Yes, it surprised me, too, but popcorn is chock-full of polyphenols, the same compounds found in berries and tea that are linked to heart health and a lowered cancer risk.

  4. Check Out Other Surprising Sources of Antioxidants

So now that you know what to reach for at snack time, what should you steer clear of? Flavored chips—anything from BBQ potato chips to Doritos Cool Ranch. (Love Chips? Try These Healthier Homemade Chips and Dips Recipes)

Why are flavored chips the bad boys of the snack world?

  1. They’re higher in calories, fat and sodium, with very little fiber. Plus you’ll get a lot of unnecessary additives like artificial flavors and colors.
  2. Because you can’t eat just one. The combination of salt, sugar and fat is addictive and makes our brain want more…and more and more. And even though flavored chips might not seem like they have way more calories than popcorn (many brands are about 150 calories per ounce), an ounce of chips is so much smaller than an ounce of popcorn (it’s about 12–20 chips, depending on the brand). Most snack-size bags have 2–3 ounces, bringing the calorie count way up.

  3. They’re not going to satisfy you. Either you’ll wolf down several servings and then feel slightly sick or, if you’re one of those people with extreme willpower, you’ll still be hungry after a serving.

  4. Must Read: 5 "Bad" Foods You Should Be Eating

What are your favorite healthy snacks?

By Kerri-Ann Jennings Kerri-Ann Jennings

Kerri-Ann, a registered dietitian, is the associate editor of nutrition for EatingWell magazine, where she puts her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University to work writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, cook and bake.

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