As someone who works out religiously every day because I want to feel healthy and look strong, you’d think I’d have my food game on point. But alas, I’m terrible at choosing which meals to put in my body (and just forget it when it comes to snacks; I'm a fiend for carbs). In my defense, in 1992, when the food pyramid was introduced to America by the USDA, it recommended individuals eat up to 11 servings of carbs per day (compared with three to five servings of veggies and two to four servings of fruit). It wasn't until 2005 that these ratios changed before being replaced again in 2011. Today, the USDA has stopped making food diagrams, and I think we can all agree that’s for the best.
As much as I wish the food guidelines laid out by the original food pyramid were, in fact, the best way to maintain a healthy diet, we now know that 10-11 servings of carbs per day is overkill (not to mention shocking that this notion took so long to be discarded). The pendulum has swung a bit too far in the other direction in recent years, though, and we've been fed the belief that carbs are the enemy (news flash: that isn't the case). Carbs are necessary for energy and are often full of the fiber our digestive systems need. The problem, instead, is an excess of carbs, especially in the form of pastas, breads, and cereal. So if you're a carb junkie like me looking to cut down (or following the high-protein, high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet) I turned to registered dietician and best-selling author Erin Palinski-Wade for some of her favorite low-carb snack choices.
But first, when it comes to healthy snacking, what are the benefits of going low carb?
I knew I would like Palinski-Wade right off the bat when she uttered the words, “Carbs are certainly not bad for you." Though, like I said before, the sentiment certainly doesn't end there. She continues, "When it comes to snacking, many high-carb snacks are processed foods loaded with added sugars and refined flours, which can have a negative impact on health and weight.” Palinski-Wade said snacking on foods rich in protein and plant-based fats can be a great way to cut down on added sugars in your diet. “Foods rich in protein and fat are also more filling as they take longer to digest, so snacking on protein and fat over a carbohydrate source may be more satisfying and help with portion control throughout the day.”
What Should You Look for on a Label?
“Just because a food is labeled low-carb doesn’t make it a healthy choice," says Palinski-Wade. "What you want to focus on is the Nutrition Facts panel as well as the ingredient list.” For snacks, Palinski-Wade said you should opt for choices that use up less than 20% of your daily calorie needs to avoid overeating from snacks alone. She also recommends looking for options that contain lean protein from plant sources or lean animal sources. “Snacks containing fat are fine, but opt for the majority of the fat to come from unsaturated, plant-based sources.”
It’s also especially important to be on the lookout for foods modified to be low-carb through excessive processing and artificial ingredients. “Naturally low-carb snack options such as nuts, seeds, cheese, and avocado have nothing added to them and make very healthful choices,” she explains. “Processed foods labeled 'low-carb' may or may not have additives to help them cut the carbs while maintaining the traditional taste and texture. For instance, a low-carb snack may contain a large number of artificial sweeteners or may have a higher amount of saturated fat to provide the same mouthfeel as a food rich in sugar.” Before selecting a low-carb snack, reading the ingredients is key. “Just like you would avoid foods with added sugars in the first five ingredients, watch out for foods with large amounts of added saturated fats, partially hydrogenated oils, or excessive amount of artificial ingredients.”
Processed low-carb snacks containing a high amount of added saturated fats, sodium, or large amounts of artificial sweetener are a no-go. Palinski-Wade said it’s okay for 10% of your total calories to come from saturated fats, but you definitely don’t want that to come from just one snack option. So before going with processed, her biggest piece of advice is to look for whole foods first like nuts, seeds, avocado, hard-boiled eggs, nut butters, and non-starchy vegetables, which make wonderful snack options in their natural state. But again, if you’re a pre-packaged fiend like me, read the label and look out for excess sugar, high amounts of saturated fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and excessive amount of artificial ingredients.
Erin’s Go-To Low-Carb Snacks:
Babybell cheeses contain five grams of protein per serving, and since they're individually wrapped, they makes a great on-the-go option to eat alone or pair with fresh vegetables.
Nuts are a great source of protein, plant-based fat, and fiber, which can help you stay full for hours. On top of that, the salty crunch can curb that salt craving instead of reaching for a chip.
Hard boiled eggs are packed full of high-quality protein while containing essential nutrients we tend to fall short of, such as choline for brain health. Try hard boiling a batch of eggs on a Sunday for an easy snack option that can be enjoyed anywhere throughout the rest of the week (just, you know, be mindful of the inevitable smell).
With over 75% of the fat in the avocado coming from good, unsaturated fat, this low-carb option can make a filling, nutrient rich snack. Avocado can be enjoyed alone or you can try mashing it and spreading over celery sticks or using as a mayo substitute in tuna and egg salad.
Berries are packed full of water and fiber making it a lower carbohydrate option that can be enjoyed alone or blended into a smoothie for a healthier way to curb your sweet cravings.
If you need to satisfy your chocolate craving without the carbs, these bars are the perfect alternative. Using cocoa beans sweetened with a monk fruit and fiber blend, this low carb chocolate contains no sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners and can make a good alternative for everyone from people with diabetes to those going keto.
If you want a super easy-to-make candy recipe, Palinski-Wade's homemade Low Carb Peanut Butter Cups are a great choice. With just 16 calories and two grams of carbs, these satisfy your craving for the store bought variation in a much healthier way.
What's the optimal time to enjoy these snacks?
“Having snacks can ward off excessive hunger which can lead to cravings, eating too fast, and eating too much,” says Palinski-Wade. Although, she doesn’t recommend snacking at a set time just to snack. Simply put: if you aren’t hungry, skip the snack and wait until you are. “I generally think planning snacks so that you don't go longer than four to five hours without eating is key to preventing excess hunger and cravings.”