Finding healthy snacks can be a challenge, especially when you’re watching your blood sugar. It can therefore be helpful to have a short list of high-quality snacks that tend not to spike your blood glucose levels. In general, we would advise most people to stick to a minimum of snacks and instead focus on a small number of larger meals throughout the day. This way your body can spend some time in a “fasting state,” which much emerging nutritional science supports is part of a healthful feeding pattern. However, situations will inevitably arise in which you will need or want a snack, such as traveling, adjusting to a new routine, adapting to unexpected changes in plans, and so on. We feel it’s better to be prepared and have a set of quick and nutritious foods ready to go such that when you look for a snack – and inevitably, we all do – it’s one that has a minimal impact on your blood glucose levels.
Why You Want Snacks That Won’t Raise Blood Sugar
When we look for a snack, most of us tend to look for something that picks up our energy levels immediately like a sports drink, chips, caffeinated soda or candy bar. Although this strategy will doubtlessly have an immediate and dramatic effect, that effect is often predicated on a spike in blood glucose, which can have harmful side effects if persistently elevated. Also, the spike in glucose will lead to a spike in insulin, the hormone the body uses to transport glucose into cells, and the result will be a sugar crash with the attendant lower energy levels. In the most practical terms, looking for a quick sugar rush will not only lead to a sugar crash, but can carry potentially serious consequences if done too often – one reason we discourage snacking.
However, there is an exception to every rule, and snacks low in sugar and with a low glycemic index (GI) can have a minimal impact on your blood sugar. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, one sugar spike and crash would leave a person in the exact same situation as before, looking for an energy bridge to the next meal. So, we can have a situation in which someone quickly piles on the sugar and calories to stabilize his or her blood sugar for the required period. Furthermore, a sudden crash in blood glucose can cause a hunger response, so the person will be motivated to eat even more snacks, enlarging the spikes and worsening the problem, as well as leading to more food consumption than may have originally been intended.
This cycle of glucose spike and insulin spike, followed by glucose crash and hunger signals can have dramatic health consequences that can be difficult to reverse. It’s worth noting that in each of these cases, the act of snacking is done once, so it would take most people years of bad habits to result in severe negative health outcomes. All the same, the single best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one, and it’s never too early or too late to get into the healthful practice of consistently eating well. Among the most feared consequences of being overweight or obese is insulin resistance, in which the body loses some of its ability to respond to insulin, and thereby traps abnormally high levels of glucose in the blood.
Healthy Snacks That Won’t Raise Your Blood Sugar
Protein is generally considered the most filling macronutrient, or in other words the part of the food that will make you feel satisfied for the longest amount of time – an effective energy bridge to the next meal. Even better, it has the most even and least extreme effect on blood glucose levels. So, you may notice a theme among these snack options: most are high in protein, some in protein and fat, and a few just in fat, but the key idea is that all have manageable levels of carbohydrates, which ultimately become a quick source of glucose in the blood. Among carbohydrates, we would recommend in addition to low overall levels a bias towards complex carbs that take longer to digest, all to minimize the blood sugar spike as much as possible.
In general, you would also want to choose snacks that are nutrient-dense (put differently: as many nutrients per calorie as possible, and often this means choosing snacks in their whole food state. Processed food as a category tends to be calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. This is because processing typically involves discarding indigestible or simply unappealing parts of food from a pure taste perspective. Our digestive system, unfortunately, has yet to catch up with the highly processed food culture we find ourselves living in, so this can cause short-term derangements in blood glucose levels as well as deprive your body of the balance between nutrients and calories it has come to expect over tens of thousands of years.
Although some of these will require some basic meal preparation, the idea is that the finished snacks will be stable, storable and portable – so that at the exact moment a snack craving hits, it will be as convenient as a candy bar or can of soda. Wherever possible, they will also be made from raw or unprocessed ingredients for the reasons stated above. Here then is a short list of snacks that can be prepared in advance or eaten as they are purchased, with a focus on both nutrient density and the lowest possible impact on your blood glucose levels.
Hard Boiled Eggs
- The incredible, edible and protein-dense egg can be prepared ahead of time with ease. The most stable preparation of this snack is probably simply to boil them, then peel them wherever you want to eat. If you have a kitchen available, they can be quickly garnished with your favorite seasonings - salt, pepper, everything but the bagel seasoning, and hot sauce are some of our favorites.
- Probably the best base for a yogurt bowl for our priorities would be a thick, full-fat and unsweetened Greek yogurt (which strains out the lactose and whey, but on balance has more protein than normal yogurt because the resulting yogurt is much denser). Mix in some flax seeds, nuts, spices or a reasonable quantity of blueberries or blackberries and this nutrient-packed dish is ready to eat.
Cottage Cheese Bowls
- Full fat cottage cheese is the substitute for yogurt in this recipe, so the usual suspects for mix-ins would still apply – flax seeds, cinnamon or berries.
- Although perhaps the most delicious preparation is guacamole (and you can substitute the chips with carrots or other crunchy vegetables), one advantage of whole avocados is you can store them outside a refrigerator. Simply cut one in half and season with salt, pepper, lemon juice or hot sauce for a high-fiber, low-carbohydrate snack.
- Three tablespoons of chia seeds mixed with half a cup of unsweetened almond milk and cooled overnight in the refrigerator will yield a savory and satisfying treat. Cinnamon, almond butter or coconut flakes would be ideal toppings.
- Whole soybeans in the pod are one of the most stable, least fussy options on this list – simply peel and eat for a high-protein, whole food energy source. These can also be found pre-peeled and frozen.
- Hummus is a dip made from cooked, ground chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and garlic and pairs exceptionally well with fresh sliced cucumbers or snap peas. Be sure to inspect the nutritional information to ensure it meets your goals.
- Layer smoked salmon and cucumber slices with a dollop of unsweetened Greek yogurt and chopped dill for a high-protein, flavorful tzatziki upgrade.
- Beef jerky can be a great option for a shelf-stable, high protein snack. However, many large brands also add sugars to their beef jerky so be sure to inspect the ingredients list on the nutrition label.
Protein “Ice Cream”
- Combine ice, half a cup of milk, a scoop of unsweetened protein powder and a tablespoon of either cacao powder or espresso powder (or both) with a pinch of salt in a blender then add fresh fruit or nuts for a surprisingly satisfying treat.
Tuna or Salmon Salad
- Combine canned tuna or salmon with unsweetened full-fat Greek yogurt, sliced tomatoes, onion and a splash of extra virgin olive oil (if the can doesn’t have it) for a savory, protein-rich and nutrient-dense snack. You can eat this by itself, or scoop it with some cucumbers or celery!
- Combine fresh basil, a cherry tomato and mozzarella ball on a toothpick for a fun and no-mess version of caprese good for any time of day.
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Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.