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Raise your hand if you ever resorted to a candy bar for a mid-day boost—and then experienced a crazy sugar high and crash. Not so fun, right?
A better bet when that mid-afternoon slump rolls around: A sugar-free snack that will help stabilize your blood sugar and wean you off your sweet tooth, says dietitian Desiree Nielsen, RD.
Though the sweet stuff has come under fire lately (thanks, keto), “sugar in some forms is a key form of energy and absolutely necessary for survival," says Juliana Dewsnap, RD, LDN, CPT, dietitian for Baze. The issue: "Many individuals don’t realize how many different things fall under the category of ‘sugar.’”
Come snack time, dietitians recommend sticking to one of two options: a sugar-free snack (which contains no sugar at all) or a no-sugar-added snack (which contains only naturally-occurring sugar).
Which you opt for is totally up to you.
“Moderate amounts of naturally-occurring sugars, like those in whole fruit, are part of a healthy diet,” says Nielsen. Whole foods contain fiber that slows down the rate at which your body accesses the sugars, so you avoid that blood sugar rollercoaster.
If you go for a completely sugar-free snack, focus on energy-stabilizing protein and fiber. Just watch out for packaged snacks labeled "sugar-free," since they often contain artificial sweeteners and other chemicals worth avoiding, Nielsen says. In this case, look for the word “unsweetened” on the label and a minimal ingredients list.
Wondering if there's a difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sure? The answer is yes: While sugar is naturally found in foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, and grains, added sugar is added to a food product during manufacturing. “Even natural-sounding sugars like honey and agave are still considered added sugar,” says Dewsnap.
The issue with added sugar: Research suggests that people who consume too much (experts recommend no more than 10 percent of your daily calories) drastically increase their risk of dying from heart disease. Excess added sugar has also been linked with weight gain, skin issues, and inflammation. Not fun. Luckily, the FDA is currently rolling out a requirement that all food manufacturers disclose the grams of added sugar in their products. “This will make it much easier for people to discern how much added sugar they are eating in their favorite products,” Dewsnap says.
Until then, these nutritionist-approved sugar-free and no-sugar-added snacks will help you fuel your body right.
“The nice thing about roasted chickpeas is you can create many different flavor profiles (sweet, savory, spicy, plain) and eat them on their own or add them into a snack or trail mix,” says Dewsnap.
Don't want to roast your own? Try a brand like Biena, Saffron Road, or The Good Bean.
Per serving of Biena Roasted Sea Salt Chickpeas: 110 calories, 3 g fat (0 g sat), 16 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 290 mg sodium, 6 g protein
Pretzels are pretty versatile in terms of what you can pair them with. Dewsnap likes a whole-grain or whole-wheat bag, like Newman’s Own Spelt Pretzels. “The spelt provides a nice crunch and carries four grams of protein per serving. They're great for on-the-go snacking when paired with a single-serving packet of hummus or guac,” she says.
Per serving of Newman’s Own Spelt Pretzels (20 pretzels): 110 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g sat), 22 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 290 mg sodium, 4 g protein
Per serving of humus (2 tbsp): 60 calories, 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 5 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 140 mg sodium, 2 g protein
No shame in enjoying this childhood favorite. “The reason this combo works so well is that you get a good dose of hydration from the celery, a bit of protein and healthy fats from the nut butter, and a bit of satisfying carbohydrates and fiber from the raisins,” says Dewsnap.
Per serving (4 celery sticks, 1.5 tbsp peanut butter, 2 tbsp raisins): 220 calories, 12 g fat (2 g saturated), 22 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 137 mg sodium, 6 g protein
Satisfy your salty cravings with crunchy popcorn and you'll score a few grams of filling fiber. Just hold off on the butter and sugary toppings. (Sorry, kettle corn.)
Per serving (3.75 cups): 150 calories, 10 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 15 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 75 mg sodium, 2 g protein
Edamame is a healthy snack that is packed with plant-based protein. Natalie Rizzo, RD, dietitian and author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner, likes Seapoint Farms' Dry-Roasted Edamame, which “provides almost half of your daily fiber and contains just two simple ingredients."
Per serving: 200 calories, 6 g fat (1 g saturated), 16 g carbs, 12 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 220 mg sodium, 20 g protein
“Some smoothies can be loaded with added sugar from flavored yogurt or juice, but it’s very easy to make a smoothie just natural sugars," says Rizzo.
Her Tangerine Strawberry Smoothie gets sweetness from fruit and a little bit of vanilla extract, and packs protein from plain Greek yogurt and milk.
Per serving: 96 calories, 1 g fat (1 g saturated), 14 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 12 g sugar, 45 mg sodium, 8 g protein
Wheat crackers have fiber and complex carbs to fill you up, says dietitian Kelly Jones, RD. Pair them with the satisfying protein and fat in the eggs plus pesto, and you'll have a steady flow of energy without a spike and crash.
Jones likes Back to Nature Foods Wheat Crackers and Trader Joe's pesto. (She used these to calculate the nutrition!)
Per serving (2 eggs, 4 wheat crackers, and 2 tbsp pesto): 280 calories, 20 g fat (4.5 g sat), 12.5 g carbs, 1.5 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 390 mg sodium, 14 g protein
“Pairing a meat stick, like CHOMPS, with a piece of fruit, like an apple, is a good sugar-stabilizing snack comb because it pairs protein with fiber,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD.
"CHOMPS is my meat stick brand pick because they use grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and contain no added sugar,” she says.
Per serving (one meat stick and medium apple): 150 calories, 6 g fat (2.5 g saturated), 15 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 290 mg sodium, 10 g protein
Skip the fruit-at-the-bottom yogurts and make an added-sugar-free snack by stirring blueberries into unsweetened yogurt, recommends Jones. Fresh blueberries provide fiber, antioxidants, and all the sweetness you need.
Don't eat dairy? Jones recommends LAVVA Unsweetened Vanilla Yogurt.
Per serving (1 cup blueberries and LAVVA Unsweetened Vanilla Yogurt): 220 calories, 11.5 g fat (7 g saturated), 30 g carbs, 4.6 g fiber, 21 g sugar, 65 mg sodium, 3 g protein
“Use a pepper as a base and fill it with a packet of canned salmon or tuna," suggests Michalczyk. The pepper provides fiber, vitamins, and minerals, while the canned fish offers plenty of protein.
For extra omega-3s, used canned salmon, like Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon.
Per serving (half a pepper and one packet of Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon): 110 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 6 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 4 g (from the pepper) sugar, 230 mg sodium, 13 g protein
Nothing beats this no-utensils-needed iconic snack. “It’s one of my faves,” says Nielsen, thanks to its plant-based protein content. Be sure to read the label and make sure no sugar has been added to the almond butter.
Per serving (medium apple and 1 tbsp almond butter): 193 calories, 9 g fat (1 g saturated), 28 g carbs, 19 g sugar, 3 mg sodium, 6 g fiber, 4 g protein
Nielsen says this is the perfect no-sugar-added snack for anyone with a serious sweet tooth.
Per serving (one date and 1 tbsp peanut butter): 161 calories, 8 g fat (1 g saturated), 21 g carbs, 17 g sugar, 63 mg sodium, 4 g fiber, 4 g protein
Want to upgrade a plain piece of toast? Make DIY jam by mashing two and a half cups of thawed frozen raspberries and stirring in two tablespoons of chia seeds. Let sit until the chia seeds plump and hydrate. The expansion of the chia seeds will help keep you fuller for longer.
Per serving (one slice toast): 78 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated), 14 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 196 mg sodium, 2 g fiber, 5 g protein
For the healthiest dessert in the history of desserts (or, dessert for breakfast), Neilsen suggests pairing yogurt with unsweetened cocoa and diced frozen cherries stirred in for extra antioxidants.
Per serving (1 cup): 110 calories, 7 g fat (7 g saturated), 10 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 45 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 0 g protein
A handful of almonds is the poster child of healthy snacking. But Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, says the Blue Diamond gourmet variety is her new go-to. “They come in a variety of flavors including rosemary and sea salt, black truffle, garlic herb and olive oil, and pink Himalayan salt," she says. "They also provide protein and just the right crunch to keep you feeling satisfied.”
Per serving: 170 calories, 15 g fat (1 g saturated), 5 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 130 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 6 g protein
Like waffle à la mode—but healthier. For an added boost of antioxidants, Taub-Dix suggests adding cinnamon on top, a great sugar-free way to add flavor.
Per serving (one waffle and ½ cup cottage cheese): 151 calories, 2 g fat (1 g saturated), 16 g carbs, 4.5 g sugar, 580 mg sodium, 1.5 g fiber, 16 g protein
Not an avo toast fan? This alternative is Taub-Dix’s way of sustaining blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Per serving (1 tbsp almond butter and one slice bread): 167 calories, 10 g fat (1 g saturated), 14 g carbs, 1.5 g sugar, 100 mg sodium, 4 g fiber, 6 g protein
Overnight oats made with unsweetened vanilla Almond Breeze almond milk are a dietitian go-to. “I like to add frozen raspberries, chopped nuts, and chia seeds to help it congeal a little more,” says Taub-Dix, who loves that overnight oats offer protein.
(Making overnight oats is super easy, BTW.)
Per serving (¼ cup): 150 calories, 2.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated), 27 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 0 mg sodium, 4 g fiber, 5 g protein
Taub-Dix says her go-to partner for cut-up veggies—a food group most of us don’t get nearly enough of—is Sabra hummus. “It’s a good source of fiber and contains protein,” she says.
Per serving (2 ounces): 150 calories, 11 g fat (1.5 g saturated), 9 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 260 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 3 g protein
Taub-Dix recommends mixing one hard-boiled egg with one-fifth of a medium avocado for a protein-filled snack with plenty of heart-healthy fats.
Per serving: 117 calories, 9 g fat (2 g saturated), 2 g carbs, 73 mg sodium, 0 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 6.5 g protein