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Low-fat dairy products, such as reduced-fat mozzarella, are a good source for protein, calcium and carbohydrates.
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updated 9/5/2006 8:34:18 AM ET 2006-09-05T12:34:18

Its 3 p.m. and getting the Power-Point ready for the morning meeting is starting to seem like climbing Everest without oxygen. Hiding under your desk for a quick snooze isn't an option. So you do the next best thing — you grab a snack.

Of course, you're not alone. Whether it happens to be at the same time every afternoon or in the middle of the night, most Americans snack about as often as they eat regular meals. According to the International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Association in Madison, Wisc., 90 percent of us indulge in a snack on any given day, while only 75 percent eat breakfast and 88 percent eat lunch.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, it turns out that snacking isn't bad for you and is actually serving a biological need.

"By snacking you are fueling your body and maintaining your energy level, blood sugar level, and appetite level," says Dana Ellis, a dietician at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Hold off on the Hostess
That doesn't mean that Ding Dongs and gummy bears are the way to go. Everyone knows that even if they are tasty, they pack in calories, refined sugar and sometimes trans-fats — all of which contribute to weight gain and further medical problems. The risks don't keep us from wanting them. According to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com, retail sales of snack foods in the U.S. for 2005 totaled $61.4 billion, with the largest category being candy at $19.9 billion.

There's a more immediate reason to skip the vending machine, though. While candy may feel like it's soothing your craving, it's not. Eating candy or other unhealthy snacks such as potato chips, donuts, or cookies will amp you up for the time being, but cause your blood sugar levels to quickly peak and just as quickly, drop. That in turn, makes the craving worse and makes you lethargic, moody and probably intolerable, says Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet, who says it is crucial to avoid foods that cause big swings in blood sugar.

"If your blood sugar drops too much, that's when you really lose self control," he says. "When I started our diet, I used to want a snack in the afternoon, so I would scarf down a couple of low-fat muffins and a coffee thinking it was healthy."

Sugar causes you to eat more
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a family physician in Flemington, N.J., and author of the nutrition book "Eat to Live," also says that eating food that is low in nutrients, such as candy bars, causes a person to eat more because the body still needs to meet its nutritional needs.

"If we don't meet these needs then we can't detoxify and remove waste. Then our bodies tell us to keep eating more and more food, which I call toxic hunger — basically, a food addiction."

Healthy choices
Instead of sugary treats, dieticians recommend fruits and vegetables, along with food that contains good fats like omega-3, lean protein and fiber. Some examples are nuts for lean protein and healthy fat, while hummus provides fiber and is tasty.

Other tips for smart snacking:

  • Freeze fresh fruit such as bananas in a plastic bag, then take them out a couple of days later to blend with ice, soy or regular milk, and a bit of cocoa powder to make a smoothie.
  • Snack first, then get to other tasks. Trying to eat and do other things, even simple activities such as watching TV, can cause a person to overeat because they aren't paying attention.
  • Be selective when grocery shopping. A good rule of thumb is if you have it, you will eat it, so avoid buying unhealthy food such as doughnuts and snack cakes and load up on fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Snacking is important to fuel the body — get that with a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates all at the same time.
  • Pay attention to the times that you tend to get cravings each day, that way you can be armed with healthy food, instead of scrambling and settling for sugary snacks.

The right snack for the right person
Of course, having the right snack varies from person to person. For instance, an athlete who works out for a couple of hours each day may need a snack that is higher in carbohydrates, but is also replenishing to the body. Instead of grabbing a candy bar, nutritionists recommend drinking a bottle of pure pomegranate juice because it is high in natural sugar and in antioxidants.

For those who constantly travel, meal-replacement bars make good snacks because they can easily fit into a backpack and contain essential nutrients, protein and carbohydrates. Just be aware of the glorified candy bars that are chocked full of sugar. Agatston says to look for ones that contain a few grams of fiber and are high in protein. He also says not to eat a whole one if the intention is to have it as a snack because they may have more calories than are needed.

Since we know that picking the right kind of snacks can be tricky, we decided to take some recommendations from dieticians. The snacks on the slides that follow are suggestions for certain types of people, but they work for just about anyone — all simple solutions when it's time for a quick pick-me-up.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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