Tips for turning between-meal bites into nutritional powerhouses
By Sally Wadyka
Less than 20 percent of people 55 and older snack every day, according to market research firm Mintel. But the science suggests that snacking can be an integral part of a healthy diet, especially for older adults. In particular, it can help compensate for nutritional deficiencies that might result from the dip in appetite that commonly occurs with age.
“Older adults often get fuller more quickly, and they may have a dulling of their smell and taste sensation that leads them to quit a meal sooner,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, senior clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Taking certain medications, getting less exercise, and having difficulties chewing can also reduce your desire to eat at meals.
Not eating enough throughout the day can leave you short on the calories you need to stay energized, and you might take in fewer nutrients than you need. Older adults often don’t get enough protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin B12, for example. Studies have found that healthy snacking improves the quality of older adults’ diets overall, and it may improve physical function.
Misconceptions about snacking might be responsible for the reluctance to grab something small between meals. “The word ‘snack’ can have negative connotations, but that’s because people may confuse a snack with a treat,” says Lisa Sasson, RD, a clinical professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University.
Of course, nibbling on empty calories—sugary treats, refined carbohydrates, and foods high in saturated fats—will do your health more harm than good. But the right foods, in the right combinations, can improve your diet and your health. “Choose foods from at least two different food groups—such as fruit and grains or vegetables and dairy—when putting together a snack,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University’s Doisy College of Health Sciences. “That will help you get a mix of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and protein.”
The right size for your snack depends on how many total calories you need in a day and how much you’re eating at meals. If you eat three squares a day, it’s best to keep your snacks to 150 to 200 calories (unless you need to gain weight). For those who eat lightly at meals, 300- to 400-calorie snacks should be appropriate.
Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all diet plan, there’s no one right way to snack. To get the most out of your between-meal bites, approach snacking in a way that suits your eating style.
If you routinely skip breakfast: Not everyone is ready to eat the minute they wake up, so it’s okay to replace a traditional breakfast with a midmorning minimeal. “Think of it more like a delayed breakfast,” Sasson says. “You’re still ‘breaking the fast’ of the night, so you need a mix of protein, carbs, and fat to fuel your body.” She suggests foods that include whole grains (a good source of fiber) to help modulate your blood sugar and prevent a spike, then a drop, in energy. Try a slice of whole-grain toast with nut butter and banana slices, a hard-boiled egg with a piece of fruit, whole-grain crackers with slices of cheese and apples, or yogurt sprinkled with berries and whole-grain cereal.
If you have an afternoon energy slump: “This may mean you’re dehydrated more than hungry,” Hunnes says. Older adults might not always drink enough during the day to maintain hydration. “Thirst can be blunted with age,” Sasson says. An energy-boosting snack with a high water content could be just what you need to power you through your afternoon. Try a smoothie packed with fruit (fresh or frozen) and yogurt, a cup of low-sodium vegetable soup plus a small bowl of popcorn sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and spices, or guacamole on whole-grain pita chips with a glass of fruit-flavored seltzer.
If your diet is low on protein: Older adults need more than younger adults—about 70 to 80 grams for a 150-pound person—and not getting enough of it can speed muscle loss. Packing your snacks with protein can help your overall intake. If you find yourself eating less meat as you get older (and your meals get smaller), plant-protein snacks can be an easy way to increase your daily total. Try roasted chickpeas, steamed edamame, a handful of slivered almonds, whole-grain pita with hummus, or refried beans with a sprinkling of cheese spread on a corn or whole-wheat tortilla.
If you hate to cook (or eat) big meals: “For some, following an eating pattern of five to six small, frequent snacks is easier to manage than three larger meals,” Linsenmeyer says. If you don’t mind cooking on occasion, she suggests doing it in bulk. Make a big pot of soup or chili, and store it in individual portions that you can heat up for minimeals. If that’s too much cooking, stock up on staples you can throw together and microwave—such as canned beans, tuna, low-sodium soup, frozen veggies, and frozen brown rice. “Look for packaged foods with the fewest ingredients to avoid unhealthy additives,” Sasson says. Try a microwaved small sweet potato topped with broccoli and shredded cheese, brown rice with black beans and baby spinach, or tuna on a bed of greens drizzled with olive oil.
If you love a sweet treat before bed: “When your overall diet is healthy, there’s nothing wrong with including a small, sweet snack in the evening,” Sasson says. “Denial isn’t healthy, so pick something you enjoy and can look forward to that isn’t excessive.” A bedtime snack that satisfies your sweet tooth while providing some end-of-day nutrients is a win-win. Try a biscotto with a glass of warm milk, a small piece of dark chocolate with a cup of herbal tea, yogurt drizzled with honey, or a few dried apricots, prunes, or dates with almonds or walnuts.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the March 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.