Snacks: How they fit into a healthy diet (

Your stomach is growling, but lunch is hours away. You're eyeing the cookies on the counter, but know that you'll feel guilty if you indulge. If you think your best option is to avoid a snack altogether and wait for lunch, think again.

A wide variety of snacks can fit into a healthy diet, so you don't need to avoid snacks. Rather, plan them with variety, moderation and balance in mind.

The benefits of snacks

You may feel guilty about snacking, but snacks aren't necessarily bad. In fact, mini meals several times a day can be beneficial. Here's how:

* Binge control. If eating several low-fat whole-grain crackers, a few pretzels, a piece of fruit or some raw vegetables keeps you from taking second or third helpings at your next meal, you may actually consume fewer total calories for the day.
* Extra energy and nutrients. Traditional, made-at-home meals often lose out to busy schedules. A grab-and-go snack can be the difference between some nourishment and none at all.
* Satisfaction for small appetites. Young children's tiny stomachs can hold only small portions of food at one time. Older adults who are less active and who burn fewer calories also may feel more comfortable eating smaller meals more frequently.

Choose healthy snacks

Select foods that can satisfy your hunger, supply your body with energy and provide important nutrients. Choose a wide variety of these foods to ensure that you get all the necessary nutrients and to make your snacks more interesting. Here are some of your best snack picks:

* Whole grains. Whole-grain snacks are rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which give you energy that has some staying power. Look for items such as low-fat whole-grain crackers, whole-grain pretzels and whole-grain crispbreads.
* Fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables provides a feeling of fullness with no fat and only a small number of calories. They also provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients.
* Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds provide protein, which helps keep you feeling fuller longer. Nuts and seeds contain mostly monounsaturated fat, a healthy kind of fat. Nuts and seeds are high in calories, however, so don't eat them in large quantities.
* Low-fat dairy products. Cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium and protein, plus a variety of other vitamins and minerals. Dairy products can be high in fat, so choose the low-fat versions. Some yogurts have a lot of added sugar, so consider "light" yogurt if you want to limit your calorie intake.

Though snacks can contribute to a healthy diet, they can also be a source of excess calories if not eaten in moderation. For example, a single serving of almonds (about 23 kernels or a handful) contains 164 calories. But if you eat handful after handful until it totals a cup of almonds, the calorie count jumps to 800-plus calories.

So what are your best choices? Here are several suggestions:

10 calories 1 large stalk of celery

25-30 calories 1 cup raw vegetables, 6 medium baby carrots

60 calories 2 cups air-popped or light popcorn, 1 cup of cantaloupe or grapes, 1 small can of vegetable juice

100 calories 1 cup sliced bananas and fresh raspberries, 2 domino-sized slices low-fat Colby or cheddar cheese, 1 fat-free chocolate pudding cup

150 calories 1/2 cup frozen, low-fat yogurt topped with 1/2 cup blueberries, 1 cup sliced apples with 1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter, 4 slices whole-grain crispbread (a wafer-thin cracker)

200 calories 1/4 cup dry roasted soy nuts (calories vary by brand), 1/3 cup granola, 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese topped with 1/2 cup sliced fresh peaches

Quick, easy-to-prepare snacks

You're more apt to opt for good-for-you snacks if you stock your refrigerator and shelves with foods that are fast — not fussy. These ideas for healthy snacks minimize fat and calories and maximize whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

* Toast one-half of a whole-wheat English muffin. Top with one slice Canadian bacon, a tomato slice and one slice low-fat American cheese. Microwave until the cheese melts.
* Mash half a banana into 2 teaspoons peanut butter and spread onto a whole-grain bagel. Large bagels contain up to 400 calories, so choose a smaller 2-ounce bagel.
* Mix 1/4 cup cold leftover chicken or convenience-type chunk chicken with sliced seedless grapes, 1/2 tablespoon sunflower seeds, 1 tablespoon plain yogurt or fat-free mayonnaise, and a dash of curry powder. Stuff into a hollowed-out green pepper or half of a whole-wheat pita pocket.
* Spread 1 tablespoon part-skim ricotta cheese over one-half of a small cinnamon-raisin bagel. Sprinkle with cinnamon if desired and top with a thinly sliced apple.
* Layer a soft mini corn or flour tortilla with 2 tablespoons shredded low-fat cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese. Microwave until the cheese melts. Slice into bite-sized pie shapes. Dip into some salsa if desired.
* Spread 1 ounce ricotta cheese over a brown rice cake. Layer with fresh strawberries or a tablespoon of sugar-free spreadable fruit. Or try using a spread of herbed goat cheese and sliced olives.
* Top a small baked potato with 2 tablespoons fat-free plain yogurt and sprinkle with Cajun seasoning.
* Spread 1 tablespoon fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt or 100 percent fruit jam over a slice of whole-grain crispbread.

Heed your hunger pangs, but forget the guilt. With planning and a little preparation, you can have healthy foods on hand, so you're ready when temptation strikes.