With the excesses of the holidays behind us, it's likely that those who had healthy eating habits before won't have too much trouble getting back on track. But for many, establishing or re-establishing a healthy diet regimen will be harder, no matter how good the intentions of New Year's resolutions.

Healthy snacks can be a part of getting where we need to be, but only if we exercise "mindful" eating," says Heather Thomas, public health dietitian with the Middlesex-London Health Unit.

What that means is snacking only when we are truly, physiologically hungry and then choosing snacks that "fit into healthier food categories, in alignment with Canada's Food Guide," Thomas explains.

"The challenge is that sometimes we eat out of habit or boredom or frustration or anxiety and we don't think whether we're actually hungry. That's when that mindless eating comes into play and that's when snacks can get a bit out of hand."

On their website, www.dietitians.ca, Registered Dietitians of Canada warn that too much snacking can lead to unwanted weight gain. But they also not that healthy snacking is a good way to feel energized.

"Snacks can keep your blood glucose (sugar) levels stable throughout the day if you find your energy level drops between meals. This can help to curb your feeling of hunger between meals and stop you from eating too much at mealtimes."

Snacks can also help to bridge the feelings of self-denial some people might experience if they try to drastically change their eating habits overnight.

"Coming out of the holiday season it's a bit more challenging because we've been exposed to lot more of those higher-fat, higher-calorie, higher-sugar, higher-salt kinds of foods in the office, at home, at parties," Thomas says.

"For success and for longevity of healthy eating behaviours or physical activity or whatever, it's going to take some time. Your eating habits didn't happen overnight so they're not going to change overnight either."

She is not a fan of many commercial snacks, no matter how "healthy" the packaging claims they might be.

"For example, probably about 75 per cent of our sodium intake comes from packaged, prepared and processed convenience food."

Instead, she recommends getting "back to basics" and making things, including snacks, from scratch so you have control over all the ingredients, including fat, sugar, salt and overall calories.

Not surprisingly, fresh fruits and vegetables top her list of the best snacks and homemade snacks made of ingredients that are "more true to their original form."

Having said that, she agrees there is "absolutely" room for the occasional indulgence.

"It's all about moderation. The trick is what's moderation to me as dietitian is often very different from moderation to the general public. You have to recognize that it's OK to have a couple of cookies. It's not OK to have a row of cookies. You have to use common sense.

"A healthy diet's not going to be made or broken with a day's worth of unhealthy snacks, but it's the overall pattern that's more of a concern. You want to have intake of a wider range of different foods, including fruits and vegetables, milk and alternatives, meats and alternatives. Foods that fit into your regular healthy eating pattern are more important than the ones that are higher in sugar, higher in salt, higher in fat.

"Behaviour change is hard and it takes time and commitment and it might take some failures before things move forward and that's normal."

Specific suggestions for healthy snacks from Registered Dietitians of Canada include one medium fresh fruit, a large stalk of celery with 60 ml (1/4 cup) of low-fat, low-sodium cottage cheese, 175 ml (3/4 cup) low-fat yogurt, 500 ml (2 cups) air-popped or low-fat microwave popcorn, three or four plain cookies such as arrowroot, ginger snaps or graham crackers, 30 low-salt pretzels, 250 ml (1 cup) raw vegetables with low-fat salad dressing or dip or 30 ml (2 tbsp) of unsalted peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews walnuts or soy nuts.

"We're so hard on ourselves when we get off track," Thomas says. "We get so down on ourselves. We just have to remember that any movement toward a healthier lifestyle is a movement in the right direction."

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To contact Susan Greer, email susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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