We’ve all found ourselves staring through the glass of a snack machine, desperate for something to tide us over until the next meal. Resigned to the fact that it’s probably going to be full of fat, calories, sugar and/or salt, we plunge in the quarters. But not every pick from one of these handy machines is a diet disaster. Two nutritionists, Cabiria Groccia, R.D., and Laurie Block, R.D., punch the buttons on six different machines to show you which snacks you should — and shouldn’t — choose. And because sometimes what you really need is a meal, they have combined snacks into a not-bad-for-you 350- to 600-calorie meal substitute.
Salty/Sweet Vending Machine
What’s available: Corn chips, nacho chips, potato chips, pretzels, cheese crackers, salted peanuts, mini-doughnuts, chocolate mini-doughnuts, shortbread cookies, chewing gum, hard candies.
Healthiest snack: Pretzels. Generally low in calories and containing little or no fat, they’re a source of complex carbohydrates, providing an energy boost without the excess calories or the extra fat that may make you feel sluggish.
Runner-up: Salted peanuts. “The vending machine size is less than 200 calories and does provide a good source of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber and the kind of fat [mono-unsaturated] shown to increase HDL [‘good’] cholesterol,” says Block.
Worst snack: Chocolate mini-doughnuts. They often come in a package of six that contains a whopping 800 calories as well as one third of your daily cholesterol limit, says Groccia. “If you must have something chocolate, skip this machine altogether and head for your company’s kitchen. Mix a packet of sugar-free instant cocoa with low-fat milk, and you’ll get some protein and calcium in the bargain,” says Block.
When you crave sugar: Go for chewing gum, which gives you the sweetness you want without the fat. One piece can go a long way (in terms of flavor), limiting your intake of calories yet satisfying that urge.
When you crave salt: Pretzels again. “They give you more volume and crunch than the same size bag of potato chips,” says Block.
To make a meal out of it: Go for a bag or two of the pretzels and the peanuts. “It’s not quite a peanut butter sandwich, but it combines carbohydrates, protein and mono-unsaturated fat,” says Block. To accompany this makeshift meal, drink a glass or two of water to compensate for the sodium you’ve taken in.
What’s available: Cheese-peanut butter crackers, potato sticks, sourdough pretzel nuggets, pretzel twists, microwave popcorn, animal crackers, fat-free chocolate sandwich cookies, frosted Pop-Tarts.
Healthiest snack: Animal crackers, which are generally low in calories (10 crackers = 112 calories) and saturated fat.
Worst snack: Cheese-peanut butter crackers. These are high in calories (six contain 210 calories) and fat (the saturated kind) and contain only a single gram of fiber. Equally bad: frosted Pop-Tarts. “You’re eating almost the calorie equivalent of a meal (400 calories), and with 10 grams of fat, it’s an unhealthy one at that,” says Block.
When you crave sugar: Fat-free cookies. “They often contain the same number of calories as their full-fat counterparts because they substitute sugar for the fat, but the individual snack size means you have automatic calorie control,” says Groccia.
When you crave salt: Pretzels. Nix the potato sticks — they’re salty, but they also contain 250 calories and 18 grams of fat. Microwave popcorn can be tricky; some brands contain fat and as many as 400 calories per bag — a lot of calories to spend on a snack.
To make a meal out of it: Choose the cheese-peanut butter crackers, especially if you can drink some skim or 1% milk with it. Why is the worst snack pick a good meal substitute? “A meal should be between 350 and 600 calories and contain enough fat to tide you over to the next meal,” says Block.
What’s available: Skim milk, V8 juice, canned “light” fruit cocktail, instant noodle soup cup, yogurt, plain bagel with cream cheese, green salad (dressing on the side), chicken-salad sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, baked potato topped with broccoli and Cheddar cheese.
Healthiest snack: Skim milk. A rich source of calcium and protein, it’s also low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and eight ounces contains only 90 calories.
The runners-up: the salad, yogurt, or V8 juice. The baked potato is okay, but only if you brush off the cheese before you eat it. “It’s more of a meal than a snack, but all the complex carbohydrates and fiber will keep hunger pangs at bay for hours,” says Groccia.
Worst snack: Ham and cheese sandwich. You’ll chow down 400 calories and approximately 70 mg cholesterol.
When you crave sugar: Canned “light” fruit cocktail. Even low-cal syrup is loaded with sugar. Also, fruit has a natural form of sugar that will most definitely satisfy your body’s craving. You’ll also get some fiber and some vitamin C in the bargain.
When you crave salt: Instant noodle soup. It’s low in calories and has plenty of sodium. Since it’s hot, you’ll eat it slowly and enjoy it more.
To make a meal out of it: You’ve got lots of choices. Combine the fruit cocktail with yogurt. Or pick the V8 juice, the baked potato and the green salad. For a really low-cal meal, opt for the soup, the salad and the fruit cocktail.
What’s available: Fruit punch, cranberry-raspberry blend, cranberry juice, orange juice, water, berry lemonade, sports drink, apple juice, iced tea.
Healthiest snack: Water. It’s pure, natural and calorie-free, and we need more of it than we usually get. Water quenches thirst, which may be mistaken for hunger. Of course, you could get a drink from the office fountain for free. If you want to spend the money, buy nutrients — go for the 100% orange juice.
Worst snack: Cranberry-raspberry juice drink. The average serving contains 110 calories, the highest in this group. Don’t be fooled by the promise of two fruits in a beverage. Anytime a beverage is labeled “blend” or “ade” or “drink,” you’re getting as little as 3 to 5 percent fruit juice. “Basically, you’re drinking mainly refined, inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup and water,” says Block.
When you crave sugar: Iced tea, provided it’s unsweetened, so you can add your own (which will help you control your calorie intake). Otherwise, opt for the orange juice, since it has around the same amount of sugar and calories as the other choices but more nutrients.
When you crave salt: While these beverages do contain varying amounts of sodium, none tastes especially salty.
To make a meal out of it: “You could drink 400 to 600 calories of juice, but it probably won’t be very satisfying for long,” says Block. Juice paired with some high-fiber crackers and peanut butter (keep some stashed in your office drawer) is a better bet.
What’s available: Cola, diet cola, cherry cola, root beer, orange soda, ginger ale, plain seltzer.
Healthiest snack: Plain seltzer. Zero calories — enough said! It’s pushing it to call ginger ale a health food, but it can calm an upset stomach, and it’s also slightly lower in sugar than other sodas.
Worst snack: Orange soda, at 180 calories per can.
When you crave sugar: Diet cola will give you the sweet flavor without the calories. If it’s the sugar you really want, go for the orange soda. To reduce calories, pour out half the can and add the seltzer.
When you crave salt: You’re out of luck with this machine.
To make a meal out of it: Don’t even try.
How much sugar are you drinking?
What’s available: Chocolate whole milk, 2% milk, whole milk, orange juice.
Healthiest snack: Either the 2% milk or the orange juice. Eight ounces of 2% milk and eight ounces of orange juice are each approximately 120 calories. (That’s only 30 calories more than an eight-ounce serving of skim milk.) If calories are your main concern and the orange juice comes in a smaller (four- to six-ounce) size, choose it over the milk.
Worst snack: Chocolate whole milk. It’s loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol (definitely not a heart-healthy choice), and the chocolate flavoring adds extra calories.
When you crave sugar: Orange juice is natural sugar, and it’s loaded with vitamin C and potassium.
When you crave salt: The 2% milk. Milk contains sodium, and among the milk choices offered, the 2% is the one lowest in saturated fat, cholesterol and calories.
To make a meal out of it: Nothing close here. Keep some high-fiber cereal or fat-free cocoa mix on hand to go with the 2% milk.
When Is a Candy Bar Better?
Ounce for ounce, candy and energy bars have about the same number of calories.
But the amount of fat, including saturated fat, can be twice as high in a chocolate candy bar. Although energy bars do contain vitamins, minerals and some dietary fiber, “An energy bar is basically an enriched candy bar,” says nutritionist Laurie Block. Either can be a reasonable choice.
Choose the energy bar:
* When you don’t have time to sit down to a meal. Look for one labeled “nutritional supplement,” which means it will have vitamins and minerals, unlike a candy bar. Look for roughly the number of calories you want to consume (a real meal has at least 350) and remember that it should have no more than 3 grams of fat for every 100 calories. Pair it with a glass of milk or juice.
* When you need a boost before you exercise. Choose one with about 150 calories and with the least amount of fat. Fat actually hinders your body’s absorption of the real power food, carbohydrates.
* Because even though you’re trying to count calories, you’re starving. A low-calorie diet or granola bar may do the trick — you’ll get the sweetness you crave as well as some fill-you-up dietary fiber.
Choose the candy bar:
* When you crave chocolate. If you want a sweet snack and it’s gotta be chocolate, a candy bar is a better bet. Candy bars tend to be smaller than energy bars, so you don’t have to pretend that you’re going to eat just half
* Because you don’t want to spend the money. Energy bars aren’t cheap. A smallish candy bar with nuts will give you some protein and fiber.