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Snack Solutions for Clients

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC

Here’s how they can boost snack quality to meet the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Eating between meals in the United States comprises about one-quarter of total calories, the equivalent of a fourth meal.1 According to a Nielson report, the top five snack foods among North Americans are chips, chocolate, cheese, cookies, and fruit.2 Considering that only two of these five most consumed snack foods are nutrient dense, dietitians have an opportunity to help clients change their snacking habits and choices to more closely align their diets with the recommendations of the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

According to the DGA, the diets of about 75% of the population are low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils, and most Americans exceed the recommended limits for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.3 To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems, the DGA encourages consumers to eat a varied diet, limit saturated fats to less than 10% of total calories, replace some saturated fats with unsaturated fats, restrict added sugars to 10% of total calories, and cap sodium at less than 2,300 mg per day.3

People often view snacks as a way to boost energy, satisfy hunger, or treat themselves rather than as a source of valuable nutrients and health-boosting compounds, explains Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND, nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. This contributes to nutrient-poor diets. The DGA identifies calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D as nutrients of public health concern because they’re underconsumed and associated with health concerns. Furthermore, for young children, pregnant women, and women capable of becoming pregnant, low iron intake is also a public health concern.

The Snacking Landscape
Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey tell us that on any given day, 93% of adults snack at least once with approximately 30% of the population noshing between meals four or more times per day.4 In recent years, more Americans have traded in traditional meals for multiple snacks.1 Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, founder of Nutrition Nuptials, finds two distinct eating patterns in her practice. “Most of my clients either avoid snacks completely or they graze throughout the day. Some go very long periods of time without eating anything, and others will grab food as it becomes available without taking into account how much they’re actually consuming.” New Jersey-based Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies, says that many of her clients have dropped the traditional three-meal a day pattern in favor of several smaller meals and snacks spaced throughout the day.

According to the USDA, snacking among adults over the age of 20 contributes 21% of saturated fat and 14% of sodium intakes. For the underconsumed nutrients of public health concern, snacking contributes 20% of dietary fiber, 17% of vitamin D, 25% of calcium, 16% of iron, and 21% of potassium intakes.5

Guiding Consumer Choices
Teaching consumers to plan their snacks can lead to dietary improvements, Enright says. Encourage clients to identify several nutrient-dense snacks that are enjoyable and convenient. They should keep these foods on hand wherever and whenever they snack.

Maryland-based Kaitlin Williams, MPH, RD, LD, finds that many of her clients overeat when they deem foods healthful. To prevent an excess of calories, whenever possible, preportion snacks into small baggies or containers to increase convenience and prevent overconsumption.

Eating a serving of fruits and vegetables as part of every snack will go a long way in improving diet quality, says Palinski-Wade, who consults with Daisy Brand. They’re underconsumed food groups, sources of several shortfall nutrients, and low in both saturated fats and sodium. Pair them with other foods for an additional nutrient boost. For example, mix berries with plain yogurt or top raw vegetables with peanut butter, she suggests.

Teaching clients to read food labels is also necessary to help them meet the recommendations of the DGA. A quick glance at the serving size and the sodium line identifies the sodium in a serving of packaged food. Soon the new Nutrition Facts label will identify added sugars, allowing consumers to easily spot foods high or low in this overconsumed nutrient. A daily limit of 50 g of added sugars corresponds to 10% of a 2,000-kcal diet. Food manufacturers have until July 2018 to comply with the new labeling rules. “In the meantime, keep scanning ingredients lists for forms of added sugars,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of Plant-Powered for Life. Look for added sugars in the form of corn syrup, brown rice syrup, and honey. Some of the worst offenders are granola bars, presweetened yogurt, and cookies, she adds.

To limit saturated fats to no more than 10% of kcal, consumers eating about 2,000 kcal should restrict their intake to no more than 22 g saturated fat daily. Both the ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts panel identify saturated fats. To get rid of harmful trans fats in the diet, some food manufacturers have turned to ingredients rich in shelf-stable saturated fats such as coconut oil and palm oil, Palmer says. Better choices for packaged foods include high-oleic oils because they’re more stable. Other traditional oils, such as canola oil, olive oil, soybean oil, and others, may not be as stable but provide a more healthful fatty acid profile than tropical oils, butter, and lard.

As a nation, we remain far from meeting the health-promoting dietary recommendations of the DGA. Guiding consumers to choose more nutrient-dense snacks—especially those foods providing shortfall nutrients—will get us closer to the recommendations and boost Americans’ health.

— Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, CHWC, is a freelance writer and a nutrition and diabetes consultant to the food industry, including Daisy Brand and Dow AgroSciences, the maker of Omega-9 Oils, a high-oleic canola oil. She has a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, and is the author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition


1. Kant AK, Graubard BI. 40-year trends in meal and snack eating behaviors of American adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(1):50-63.

2. The Nielsen Company. Global consumers nibble, nosh, and snack their way to big sales. Nielsen website. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2014/global-consumers-nibble-nosh-and-snack-their-way-to-big-sales.html. Updated September 30, 2014.

3. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; December 2015.

4. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. What We Eat in America, NHANES 2011-2012. http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400530/pdf/1112/Table_29_DSO_GEN_11.pdf

5. Sebastian RS, Wilkinson Enns C, Goldman JD. Snacking patterns of U.S. adults: what we eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Surveys Research Group. http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/80400530/pdf/DBrief/4_adult_snacking_0708.pdf. Published June 2011.

Nutrient-Dense Snacks

• Popcorn
• Low-fat cottage cheese or plain yogurt with fruit
• Vegetables with hummus, salsa, guacamole, or peanut butter
• Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit without added sugars
• Corn tortillas with black beans, salsa, diced avocado, and reduced-fat cheese
• Nuts and dried fruit

— JW