In training, how you refuel is just as important as how you work out. Proper nutrition directly impacts your performance, where if you’re not replenishing nutrients, your workouts and muscle gains could suffer. That’s why eating wholesome, high quality snacks throughout the day can stave of hunger, boost your energy for workouts, and help you recover quicker. Yet, saying you’ll eat every few hours isn’t enough—you need to make sure you’re building better ways to snack into your diet with the right calories and macronutrient ratios.
It's a good idea to ask for help from a pro nutritionist. “Everyone is so different in terms of genetics, microbiome, personal preferences, lifelong habits, and lifestyle. Meeting with a registered dietitian 1:1 is an excellent way to get a holistic evaluation of these factors with help setting health and fitness goals,” says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. They also educate you on evidence-based science behind why you eat what you eat, and help you sift the fads from what really works for you.
Here, common snacking mistakes to avoid (plus pro fixes from registered dieticians!) to maximize tasty, nutritious munchies that’ll power you through training and life.
Better Ways to Snack: Pro Tips from Expert Dieticians
Mistake #1: Your Snack is Like a Meal
“Some snacks may contain the amount of calories that are typically found in a meal,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. This can throw off your mindset around what you're really consuming, versus what you think you're consuming. Plus, if you eat a high-calorie snack before a workout or Spartan Race, you may feel too lethargic to perform at your best.
“Aim for 200-250 calories in a snack and choose one that contains protein and fiber. Portion sizes can be tricky to spot but grab a snack-sized option from the store, or pack your own to ensure no portion distortion,” she says.
Pro RD Tip: Cut down on your portion size.
Have a habit of grabbing a bag of chips and eating mindlessly? Likely, before you know it, half the bag is gone. “If you eat it right out of the container, something like crackers, or peanut butter, are things that are easy to eat multiple servings of if you don't portion them out,” she says.
“For example a serving of peanut butter is two tablespoons, but if you're eating it straight out of the jar you could easily have two servings,” she says. And while peanut butter is healthy and packed with good fats and protein, it’s high in calories. Not to mention, the fat could make you lethargic pre-workout. Portion it out onto a plate or bowl and put the container away. This helps control size and keep calories in check.
Mistake #2: You Slam a Ton of Sugar
“Smoothies and acai bowls, I am looking at you! These are marketed as ‘snacks’ but sometimes can contain more sugar than you should be getting in a day and are lacking in protein that will actually keep you full,” Michalczyk says. Check the labels for added sugars and consider making your own smoothie at home instead—opt for a recipe with green veggies, protein powder, and nut butter.
Pro RD Tip: Scope out the sugar on the label, first.
In general, aim for snacks low in added sugars, since these added calories get stored as fat and elevate your blood sugar. "Artificial sweeteners can cause GI distress and may even damage your gut bacteria, on top of altering your perception of sweetness in foods and potentially impacting appetite. Look out for the following on ingredient lists: sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, and avantame," says Jones.
Mistake #3: You’re Only Eating Carbs
You want some good complex carbs in your snacks, but you also want other nutrients, as well as healthy fats, where the whole snack isn’t solely carb-based. Too many carbs can weigh you down and drain you of energy—this is especially worrisome if it’s before a race or workout. “Those doing ultra endurance training require up to 8-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day, and 60-90 grams per hour during workouts, when exercising two hours or longer. Sugar is the easiest way to get that during exercise,” says Jones. Yet, you can't just rely on carbs and that bit of sugar without other nutrients to stabilize blood sugar.
Pro RD Tip: Add in fiber and protein!
The rule of thumb is to make sure your snack always contain protein and fiber. This will ensure that you can actually make it to your next meal without reaching for another snack. A great snack example would be eating a piece of whole fruit with 2 tbsp of nut butter. This provides complex carbs for fuel and recovery, as well as fats and protein for staying power and repair. For every carb you eat, like fruit, or a slice of bread, add in protein, good fats. And don't skip the fibrous parts, either. So, if you eat an apple, eat the skin. And if you eat crackers, check the label and make sure it has at least four grams of fiber per serving, says Jones. Then add protein and fat, such as that nut butter or avocado.
Mistake #4: You’re Snacking All Day Long
It's all about balance. Don’t let your metabolism stall out and go several hours without food (unless you are on a fasting program), but also don’t snack constantly, either. That just leads to calorie overload, which can do more harm than good for your diet and training.
What’s more, if you're only snacking and not eating actual meals, it could backfire on your recovery process. “Workouts increase our hunger, so depending on the time of day you are working out, you can feel hungrier all day in general which makes it easy to snack all day and then not eat actual meals,” Michalczyk says.
Pro RD Tip: Plan your meals in advance and time them.
“Plan out 1-2 snacks so that you know what you've got in addition to your regular meals,” she says. Don’t overdo it and stick to a proper eating schedule.
Mistake #5: You Have a Protein Imbalance
“The biggest protein mistake is consuming too much at once and not enough at other times throughout the day. I would recommend that anyone who exercises frequently or intensely consume three meals and two snacks per day minimum,” says Jones. Rather than focus on protein immediately after exercise and at dinner, consume more moderate amounts at those times and add protein to your other meals and snacks. Check out our protein guide for athletes to determine how much you need.
Pro RD Tip: Eat more protein throughout the day.
“The only time I don't recommend focusing on protein is when you're snacking within 90 minutes before a workout. You can easily add protein to breakfast with hard boiled eggs, protein rich yogurt, and by cooking oats with milk or soy milk and topping with hemp seeds (the latter adds up to 18-22 grams),” she says. In your snacks, add nuts like peanuts and pistachios, roasted beans and yogurt, or string cheese. Salmon jerky is a great snack option, too.
Mistake #6: You Don’t Know Your Macros
Macronutrient requirement ratios vary greatly by individual based on genetics, exercise duration and intensity, and lifestyle. “In general though, carbohydrate needs are typically 45-60% of calories and fat needs 20-35% of calories. Protein typically falls into the 15-30% range for active individuals, but exact minimum recommendations are based on body weight,” says Jones.
Pro RD Tip: Plan your meals based on ratios.
“Just like meals, snacks should be balanced in all three macronutrients to ensure nutrients are being consumed for constant repair as well as to aid in satiety. I am a big fan of snack pairing,” she says. For example, rather than having just a piece of fruit, just veggies, or just nuts, add the nutrients that are missing. Pair fruit with nuts, and veggies with hummus and a hard boiled egg or two.
Mistake #7: You Avoid Sodium
While you don’t want to overdo the salt shaker, you shouldn’t avoid all salty foods and snacks, especially after you sweat and need to replenish your sodium levels. “Many active people focusing on nutrition go too far and follow advice meant for those who are inactive and living with chronic disease,” says Jones. Sodium is not something active individuals should be reducing, as they need it to maintain fluid balance, muscle function, and good heart health.
Pro RD Tip: Eat a few salty snacks.
Don't avoid canned beans or be afraid to add a little extra salt when cooking normal meals. And it is okay to get salted nuts after a sweaty workout—just stick to one serving.