Is Your Snack Holding You Back? Tips for Packing a Snack Made for an Athlete

Athletes love to snack, but when speaking with young athletes about snacking, the first foods that come to mind are pre-packaged salty snacks and sweet treats. Instead of wanting to know which foods are healthy, which foods they should avoid, and what the healthier alternatives to their favorite snacks are, young athletes often get stuck in the habit of reaching for junk foods in-between meals – that’s what everyone is doing! Most active people and young athletes know which foods aren’t necessarily healthy without being told. When they’re asked what snack foods they reach for, they’re usually laughing over Poptarts or Cheetos, but even if that’s what everyone else is reaching for, those junk foods aren’t made to fuel an athlete’s body. Putting the right fuel in our bodies helps us push harder and get stronger in our sport, so even though fruit and nuts aren’t cool, those foods are going to make you a better athlete, while those junk foods might be holding you back.

Unhealthy snacking isn’t uncommon – snacking has become much more popular and widely accepted, and many people (not just athletes) have moved from eating 3 main meals a day to 5-6 mini meals throughout the day or eating several smaller meals and several snacks per day.

An online poll found:

  • Snack food sales are increasing globally, not just in the U.S.
  • Many people are snacking at least once per day, and the most popular snacks globally are chocolate and fruit
  • The most popular snack in North America is chips and chocolate
  • People are snacking to satisfy that between-meal hunger they get from 3 square meals…AND people are also eating more snacks to replace meals – instead of regular meals, they might just be grazing throughout the day.

Many athletes, people training for a certain event or race, and very active people may have higher calorie needs and snacking can help those people meet their calorie and nutrient needs…but they shouldn’t be replacing a well-rounded vegetable-protein-starch meal with chips and chocolate candy. If athletes are hungry between meals, snacks should be more than just a package of junk foods – snacks are an opportunity add nutrition. Athletes should ask themselves, “How can I make this snack or meal more nutrient-dense?” because every eating opportunity is an opportunity to fuel your body for practice, competition, or recovery.

One athlete asked, “When does a healthy snack become unhealthy?” (Such as adding caramel to apple slices).

This snack isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but caramel, just like any sweet/candy/sugary treat is a “sometimes food”. You could lower the amount of sugar in the snack and add some protein and healthy fats (which would make the snack a healthier option) by swapping out the caramel with a healthier side.

For example, you could make your own cinnamon dip with Greek yogurt, peanut butter and cinnamon. You could dip the apples in almond butter or have some cheese slices or hard-boiled egg on the side.

Snacking tips for athletes:

  1. Pairing carbohydrates with protein can increase satiety and keep blood sugar levels even.
  2. Eating protein throughout the day (including that post-workout snack) can help promote muscle protein synthesis. Don’t forget the carbs, though! Adequate carbohydrate intake allows your body to spare the protein you eat to promote recovery and build muscle. 
  3. If there’s several hours between the snack and your next meal, choose a larger snack with several different food groups, containing protein and healthy fats to hold you over, plus some carbs to give you energy.
  4. If you just need to be held over for a short time before your next real meal (60-90 minutes), choose a smaller snack (100-200 calories).
  5. For athletes with a weight  gain goal, larger snacks can act as “mini meals” to help them add calories to your day. Add high-calorie foods such as nuts/nut butter and full fat dairy to snacks and meals.
  6. For athletes with a weight loss goal, eating smaller snacks and choosing crunchy vegetables and fruit, which have a high water and fiber content can help keep them full.
    •  Crunchy foods usually take a little bit longer to eat, too, so instead of reaching for a 100-calorie bar or packet of snacks, choose vegetables and/or fruit paired with some protein.
½ – 1 cup Greek yogurt Apple or banana
1 – 2 Tbsp peanut or almond butter ½ cup oatmeal
2 Tbsp – ¼ cup hummus 1 – 2 slices whole grain toast
10-30 almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc. ½ – 1 bagel
1 piece of string cheese 1 cup raw baby carrots
½ – 1 cup cottage cheese Wheat crackers (Triscuits, Wheat Thins)
Beef jerky 1 cup berries
¼ – 1 cup edamame Corn  tortilla
Hardboiled eggs Sweet potato
Lean deli meat (turkey, chicken, ham, roast beef) Raisins/Craisins
Milk Whole grain cereal
Cheese Graham crackers

For more ideas, check out these smart snacking ideas from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics!

Strive for excellence in each meal – if you’re putting in the work at practice and competition, put some thought into what goes on your plate throughout the day.