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How to Choose the Right Healthy Snack

Health is a subjective term that means something different to everyone. Likewise, “healthy” looks different on different bodies, and there’s no one way to be healthier, but one of the general consensuses is to focus on the food we’re consuming.

It can be harmful to think of foods as healthy or unhealthy because it leads to assigning moral judgements to inanimate foodstuff and then ourselves and others when we eat something “good” or “bad.” There’s research to support that releasing these food labels can support a better (or healthier) relationship with food, which can, in turn, translate to a more balanced, healthful life.

That being said, when we talk about healthy foods and healthy snacks, we’re really talking about making better, more nutritionally dense food choices. This could mean many things, but for example, a nutrient-dense and low-calorie snack option (like an apple with peanut butter) might be a healthier choice for someone than a bag of chips, which is higher calories and has significantly less nutritional value. Let’s investigate further.

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What is a Snack?

Optimum Nutrition Protein Almonds, Cookies & Creme

When we talk about healthy snacks, we need to first define what we mean by “snack.” This is because so many people think of snacks as something bad already; they confuse a snack with a sweet treat or dessert or solely focus on the calories they’d be reducing if they could just stop snacking.

However, a snack is simply a smaller (relative to a meal) portion of food eaten between regular mealtimes. A snack shouldn’t be confused with a dessert or a sweet treat and should be thought of as a way to hold you over until your next normal-sized meal.

Snacking isn’t a shameful thing that we need to stop doing, and in fact, there are lots of proven health benefits to snacking—especially if you’re choosing nutrient-dense, healthy snacks like high-protein snack options.

The Benefits of Healthy Snacks

The average Canadian eats three times a day. Typically, breakfast is fairly light upon waking, followed by a midday on-the-go lunch and a heavier dinner around 6 p.m.

With this schedule, you are likely going several hours between meals, which means your glucose and energy levels likely drop resulting in a crash and feelings of excessive hunger. When we get extremely hungry, we are far more likely to overindulge at our next meal or give in to cravings for highly processed foods.

Some of the benefits of snacking include:

  • a boost of energy
  • stable blood glucose
  • clearer thinking
  • reduced instances of overeating
  • extra nutrients when healthy snacks or high-protein snacks are chosen

Why Choose High-Protein Snacks?

Quest Nutrition Protein Chips, Ranch

The options for healthy snacks are plentiful, but high-protein snacks might be the best option for you. Why? Because high-protein snacks can help meet protein goals, which in turn can help you meet any fitness goal you might have. Studies have also found that high-protein snacks can support weight loss or management.

In addition, high-protein snacks can also help you feel fuller for longer and provide more energy than a low-calorie snack option.

What Qualifies as a High-Protein Snack?

We all know that food labels can be misleading, so let’s look at what can qualify as a high-protein snack and what you should consider high protein.

Health Canada uses a protein rating to determine what can be called high protein. The rating is based on the protein content in a “reasonable daily intake” of that specific food.

  • Foods that score 20 or more can be called “high protein.”
  • Foods that score 40 or more can be called an “excellent source of protein” or “very high protein.”

For our purposes and convenience, you can think of a high-protein snack as anything with 10 or more grams of protein. While we don’t take calories into consideration, you might want to consider the caloric density for healthy snacking. For example, a snack with 300 calories and only 10 grams of protein might not be the healthiest snack option for you, depending on your caloric needs.

Why Choose a Low-Calorie Snack?

On the other hand, if you do not need extra protein, just a tiny healthy snack to hold you over until dinner time, a low-calorie snack option might be a healthier option for you.

One of the pitfalls of snacking, and the reason you might be trying to change the mindset that snacking=weight gain, is that if you’re not careful, you can easily increase your calorie consumption above what you need.

Smart Sweets Sweet Fish

Too many calories regularly can lead to weight gain. While many people need to increase their caloric intake to meet their energy requirements, gain weight, or build muscle, many people are trying to avoid gaining weight.

One way to ensure your snacking doesn’t lead to undesired weight gain is to choose low-calorie snack options. First, however, as with high-protein snacks, we need to discuss what qualifies as a low-calorie snack.

What Qualifies as a Low-Calorie Snack?

As with “high-protein,” the government has defined specific food labels. Technically, to be “low-calorie,” something must have just 40 calories per serving size, or for pre-packaged food, it must be 120 calories or less.

Typically, when you search for low-calorie snack options, you’ll get results on snacks under a hundred calories. Practically speaking, 40 calories is essentially nothing and won’t do much for your energy or hunger levels.

Let’s consider anything under 200 calories to be a low-calorie snack for our purposes.

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Healthy Snack Options

Now that we’ve specified what we mean when talking about high-protein snacks and low-calorie snack options, let’s talk about some of our favourite healthy snack options for any goal. 

Healthy Snack Ideas for Any Time

Let’s start with some healthy snacks that work any time of the day. These snack options are for people not overly concerned with having high-protein snacks or low-calorie snacks. Instead, they’re just looking for something nutrient-dense between meals.

In that case, try:

  • avocado toast
  • banana and peanut butter
  • trail mix

Avocado Toast

Avocado Toast on a while plate on a table

Avocados are a trendy food, sometimes referred to as a “superfood.” These creamy members of the berry family are incredibly nutrient-dense and offer heart-healthy fats, a bit of protein, carbs, fibre, and a range of essential vitamins and minerals.

Avocados are a versatile food and are excellent in guacamole with tortilla chips or spread on some whole wheat toast for some added carbs and fibre. Smash and spread half an avocado and top with salt and pepper and enjoy.

Banana and Peanut Butter

Bananas, like all fruits, are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. in addition, they’re relatively low in calories and high in carbohydrates for an energy boost. On their own, bananas make a great low-calorie snack, but you can add a serving of natural peanut butter for some more energy and nutrients.

PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is high in fat and calories and a decent source of protein. While we wouldn’t necessarily consider bananas and peanut butter a high-protein snack, it definitely falls under the healthy snack category. If you’re looking for a low-calorie snack option for bananas and peanut butter, swap the natural creamy peanut butter with PB2.

Trail Mix

Trail mix is an excellent way to cover sweet and salty cravings all in one while keeping it healthy. Make your own by combining peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and chocolate chips (try white chocolate, too).

Salted, roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds provide calories, protein, and heart-healthy fats, while the dried fruit adds tangy sweetness and some vitamins and minerals. The chocolate chips add a touch of sweetness without being an over-the-top sweet treat. 

Healthy Snacks for a Morning Boost

If you’re looking for a healthy snack option for the morning, you want something known to give you an energy boost and make you feel ready to tackle the day.

Try these nutrient-dense snacks:

  • apple and peanut butter
  • oatmeal and fruit
  • coffee smoothie
  • protein bar

Apple and Peanut Butter

Everyone knows the adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and considers apples great healthy snacks. On their own, they’re a low-calorie snack that provides a hefty serving of fibre along with vitamin C and potassium. But did you know that an apple can wake you up as much as a cup of coffee? Apples don’t have any caffeine, but the natural sugars help to provide a sustainable boost in energy levels.

To make this healthy snack a little more well-rounded, add a serving of natural peanut butter. Again, if you’re looking for a low-calorie snack option, swap the peanut butter for PB2.

Oatmeal and Fruit

For those not looking to add a high-protein snack to their day, try some oatmeal with fresh or frozen fruit. Oatmeal is a delicious way to fill your belly with complex carbs and fibre, and the fruit adds sweetness and a boost of vitamins and antioxidants.

Coffee Smoothie

Turn your mid-morning coffee into a healthy snack by blending it with milk and a banana. For added flavour and nutrition content, add some coconut flakes or cocoa powder.

Add a scoop of your favourite protein powder to make this option a high-protein snack. 

Protein Bar

ONE Brands ONE Bar Chocolate Chip Cookie DoughProtein bars make a great choice when you’re in a pinch and need something ready-to-eat. They’re convenient, packed with carbs and protein, and often taste really good. In addition, the wide variety means you can find options for whatever snack you need, be it a low-calorie snack or a high-carb, high-protein snack. 

Healthy Low-Calorie Snacks for Before a Workout

When heading into the gym on an empty stomach, you often feel you’re in a lose-lose situation. You can’t eat much before you work out or you risk making yourself sick to your stomach, but if you go without, your performance suffers. In these times, a light, low-calorie snack is ideal.

The best macro-breakdown before a workout is high in carbs and light on protein and fat. Carbs and a little bit of protein will give you the energy you need, but too much protein or fat and you risk some digestive upset.

Try these healthy snacks before a workout:

  • apple and cheese cubes
  • hummus and whole-grain pita chips

Apple and Cheese Cubes

An apple and a few cheese cubes will provide that ideal macro split we mentioned, and the natural sugars in the apple will give you a nice pre-workout boost. In addition, the calories should stay in the low-calorie range as long as you’re not overdoing the cheese.

Hummus and Whole-Grain Pita Chips

Again, hummus and pita chips will give you that carb boost that helps fill your belly and provides the energy to power through a workout without being too heavy. Hummus has a little fat and protein and is a naturally low-calorie snack.

High-Protein Snacks for After a Workout

Apples & cheese on a wooden cutting board

Post-workout is protein’s time to shine. Loading up on protein is essential to help switch your muscles out of the catabolic breakdown phase and into the anabolic building and repair phase.

While there’s no denying protein’s importance immediately following a workout, carbohydrates are often overlooked at that same time. When we exercise, our glycogen stores are depleted. Consuming carbs after your workout helps replenish these stores and help your muscles repair. So, the ideal post-workout snack is both a high-carb and a high-protein snack. 

Great snacks to try after a workout:

  • protein shake and granola bar
  • Greek yogurt and granola
  • chocolate milk and veggies with dip

Protein Shake and Granola Bar

After a workout, the most common high-protein snack is a protein shake supplement. The problem is that the most popular protein supplements are extremely high in protein but lack the necessary carbohydrates to support your recovery.

If you have the chance to eat a balanced meal within two hours of completing your workout, then a protein shake is all you need. However, if you’re looking for an ideal post-workout snack, include a simple granola bar for those necessary carbs.

Greek Yogurt and Granola

If you’re not a protein shake kind of person, you can still easily give your body what it needs with a high-protein snack. Greek yogurt is an excellent source of protein and naturally contains some carbohydrates. Including some granola is great for satiation and bumping that carb count up a little higher.

One thing to watch for is excessive added sugar in flavoured yogurts and store-bought granola. If each item has added sugar, it’s easy to reach a sugar content beyond what might be considered a healthy snack.

Chocolate Milk and Veggies with Dip

Veggies with dip

One final high-protein snack suggestion for those who aren’t protein-shake fans is the classic glass of chocolate milk. Chocolate milk is an excellent source of protein and carbohydrates. The sugar content is just right to help replenish those glycogen stores, and if you choose skim milk or a milk alternative, you’re not getting excessive fat content either.

Add a few veggies and some dip to fill you up a little more and hold you over until your next meal.

The phrase “snacking” may or may not make you think you’re being bad or unhealthy. However, when we consider that a snack is just a small serving to hold you until your next meal and that choosing nutrient-dense, healthy snack options has a list of benefits, you realize you’re probably missing out! Snacking might be the key to feeling better throughout the day and meeting your health and fitness goals.

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