We’ve all been there before: in front of the TV, rapt in an intense drama only to look down after 10 minutes and stare at the bottom of an empty bowl of junk food. The regret can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. According to experts, not all unhealthy foods are necessarily bad for you.
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“There are some foods that aren’t as bad as others,” says Anar Allidina, a registered dietitian. “In fact, some of the ‘healthy’ alternatives are actually worse for you. Baked potato chips aren’t actually made from potatoes, but a starch additive and lots of chemicals. If you look at the ingredient list on a bag of regular potato chips, they’re made from actual potatoes.”
This doesn’t mean you should go hog-wild on a bag of Ruffles every night in the name of health, but it does mean that health advocates and marketing have vilified some junk or snack foods as unhealthy. In reality, some are not that bad when consumed in moderation.
So, if you’re guilty of snacking on one of these foods, stop beating yourself up for it. Just keep portion control in mind and snack away.
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Not all cookies are created equally, Allidina says. She points to Animal Crackers and graham crackers as good choices if you’re craving something sweet because they’re lower in sugar than your average chocolate chip variety.
But if you’re craving something more substantial, opt for a biscuit with nuts, advises nutritionist Ciara Foy.
“Cookies that have nuts and seeds in them are going to be better for you, because the fat and the small amount of protein you get from the nuts will balance out the sugar,” she says.
No doubt, the fact that chocolate has been taken off the naughty list is music that has been resonating in people’s ears for some time now. But Foy says it doesn’t just apply to dark chocolate.
“Even milk chocolate is good as long as it has at least 50 per cent cacao.”
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She says one of the main reasons people crave chocolate is because it’s high in magnesium — the fourth most abundant mineral in the body that is most often depleted because of stress. Magnesium contributes to hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including creating energy, forming protein and regulating the nervous system. It’s also credited with lowering blood sugar, fighting depression and reducing insulin resistance. In this case, the darker the chocolate (at least 70 per cent) the better it is.
“Really, the only problem with cheese is that most people can’t control themselves when they eat it,” says Abby Langer, registered dietitian. “People think it’s bad for them because it’s high in saturated fat, but we know the saturated fats found in milk products may not affect us the way those found in beef do.”
She also points out that cheese is a good source of calcium and that there is solid research to indicate that dairy has anti-inflammatory properties.
Which brings us to another good source of calcium: ice cream. One scoop of a good quality ice cream will not only satisfy your craving for something sweet, but it’ll also provide a boost to your bones, Langer says.
“Don’t bother with the low-fat varieties, either. They just have more additives to make them palatable,” she says. “Have a scoop of beautiful, high-quality ice cream and get over it. Just be sure to control it to one scoop.”
That convenience store staple that’s more often associated with long-haul truckers than at-home Netflix watchers, is healthier than you might think.
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“It has zero grams of sugar and is pretty lean, plus it provides a lot of protein,” Allidina says.
She says to look for brands that have low sodium or even try making it at home. This is the recipe she recommends.
A movie night staple, popcorn has received a bum rap over the years due to the excessive amounts of sodium and butter the movie theatre kind is doused with. But at-home popcorn can be just as tasty and a lot healthier.
“Popcorn gives you fibre and protein and satisfies that crunchy, salty craving we often have,” Allidina says. “Plus it has a lot of volume — you can have three cups of popcorn and it’s only 100 calories.”
If you make popcorn at home (either in an air popper or on the stove) she suggests playing around with different options like butter, coconut or olive oil. If you choose to buy popcorn instead, look for air-popped brands.
As far as Langer is concerned, it’s time to stop vilifying salted nuts.
“The science is out with salt,” she says. “We know that too much isn’t good for us, but we also know that salty foods are often ultra-processed. So, it’s hard to tease out if the salt is unhealthy or if it’s the food the salt is in.”
She says unless you have an issue with high blood pressure and are on a low sodium diet, go ahead and enjoy an ounce of salted nuts as a healthy a delicious snack.
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This one may surprise you since nutrition experts have been painting cereal (yes, all cereals) as loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates, but Langer says it’s actually a good choice as a bedtime snack.
“If you’re craving something sweet, even a bowl of Lucky Charms is better than a slice of cake. You’ll get protein from the milk and, depending on the type of cereal, some whole grains. It’s not that big of a deal.”