Snacks come in small packages, but they can have a big impact on heart health.
Many are loaded with sugar, salt or saturated fat — ingredients linked with weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Nutritionists say snacking is not necessary, and some cardiologists agree.
Dr. William Kraus, a preventive cardiologist at Duke Health and professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, avoids snacking to maintain a healthy weight and keep a regular schedule of meals.
Late night snacks are especially unhealthy, he says.
“My No. 1 recommendation to every patient who walks in my office is not to eat after dinner,” Kraus tells TODAY.com.
“It’s just going to get stored. Your body doesn’t need it … so it’s unnecessary calories going in your body. It also interrupts sleep if you eat too close to going to bed.”
Other heart doctors make room for snacks during the day.
Dr. Jennifer Mieres, professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra Northwell in Hempstead, New York, eats an early breakfast so she has a small mid-morning snack to combat hunger before lunch.
She also has a mid-afternoon snack before dinner. Mieres says she has a sweet tooth, so she makes sure to pack a healthy snack option and have it with her.
“Always be prepared,” Mieres, co-author of “Heart Smarter for Women: Six Weeks to a Healthier Heart,” tells TODAY.com.
“If I allow myself to get hungry without having something that I know will work for me, I can easily go to the cafeteria or to the (vending) machine and be tempted.”
What cardiologists eat when they snack:
Kraus tries not to snack, but when he does, he eats nuts. His favorite is a handful of peanuts.
Mieres’ mid-morning snack is a handful of almonds.
Both cardiologists praised nuts as a snack because they contain protein, healthy fat, fiber and antioxidants, and are filling. Studies have found a handful of nuts each day may lower the risk of heart disease.
Nuts are also an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, which may protect against strokes and heart attacks.
Walnuts in particular have been shown to help improve cardiovascular health, but both experts say it’s fine to enjoy cashews, pecans, macadamias or other nuts if that’s your preference.
The key is to keep the portion size to a handful because nuts are high in calories. Mieres advised eating them unsalted to avoid consuming too much sodium. Kraus likes to eat them slowly, one or two at a time, to give the body a chance to be satiated.
Mieres’ mid-afternoon snack is always fruit, such as an apple, a pear or cherries — “something with fiber,” she says.
Fiber has been shown to help protect against heart disease, the American Heart Association notes.
It’s also filling, which helps combat hunger and overeating.
“If you have to snack, fruit is a good snack,” Kraus says, noting that people who eat an apple, a banana or a peach tend to be satisfied with one piece of fruit.
Snacks that also get cardiologist approval:
Yogurt or Greek yogurt — stick with plain yogurt and keep the serving size to 4 ounces. Watch out for yogurt with granola, which is “just loaded with calories,” Kraus warns.
Dried fruit — such as raisins or dried apricots. It’s also calorie-dense so keep it to a handful.
Hummus with veggies — it contains fiber and plant-based protein.
Popcorn — as long as it’s air-popped and doesn’t contain butter. Also watch the sodium content.
Sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds — they’re also calorie-dense so stick to a handful.
Snacks cardiologists avoid:
Pretzels, chips, cookies and candy bars
That means most anything from a vending machine, including granola bars, which are often full of sugar, both experts say.
“Those are all carbohydrates, and I call those empty calories,” Kraus says. “It won’t satisfy you. It lasts about 20 minutes, and then you’re hungry again.”
Mieres called such snacks “dangerous territory.”
“Because they’re in the vending machine, they’re highly processed. Avoiding highly processed foods is a rule of thumb, unless you can’t help it,” she notes.
“If you do this once in a while, it’s not the end of the world. (But) course correcting at the end of the day is important.”
If absolutely no other food is available and you have to eat something from a vending machine, both cardiologists say they’d go for the granola bar because it has more fiber and protein than the other options.