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There has been a dramatic shift in our national eating patterns. Three square, sit-down meals have given way to grazing. Like hungry herds of animals on the range, Americans nibble, munch and sip their way through multiple mini-meals, mobile meals, liquid meals and meal replacements every day.

"A snack used to be a small amount of food that we ate in between meals," says Crystelle Fogle, a registered dietitian with the Montana Cardiovascular Health Program and president of the Montana Dietetic Association. "All-day snacking is now the normal eating pattern for many people."

A 2002 study by Information Resources ("Meals Demise, Snacks Arise") reported that the typical consumer eats 4.3 times per day, with many people eating six or more times daily. This pattern of 24/7 snacking often means that we take in more calories with fewer nutrients than we need for high-energy health.

According to Fogle, smarter snacking is simple, even in the busiest schedules.

"For more energy and a healthy weight, think about protein and portion size every time you snack," she suggests. "Getting protein in your snack helps maintain your blood sugar longer, so you don't run out of energy as quickly. Cheese sticks, yogurt, beef jerky, sliced deli-meats, nuts, sunflower seeds and some protein bars are all tasty choices."

For a super snack, combine a protein food with your favorite veggie, fruit or bread. It's as simple as a cheese stick and some baby carrots; a vanilla yogurt and a banana; half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat; a piece of beef jerky with a few cherry tomatoes; or a handful of almonds with dried fruit.

Eat Right Montana, a statewide coalition promoting healthful eating and active lifestyles, urges all Montanans to check the size of their snack portions. Super-size, biggie-size and king-size snacks and drinks often have 500 to 1,000 calories, with most calories coming from fat and sugar.

"Paying attention to your snacks can really pay off in terms of both your weight and your health," says Fogle. "Smaller-sized, nutrient-rich snacks can keep you going strong all day long."

Ten tips for smarter snacking

1. Check your hunger level.

Are you actually hungry? Or are you tired? Bored? Lonely? Happy? Or did you just see a food commercial on television? If you aren't hungry, skip the snack until you are actually stomach hungry. Mindless eating usually leads to more calories and less satisfaction.

2. Check your fluid level.

Meals demise, snacks arise

Findings from a 2002 report by Information Resources:

The fundamental definition of a meal has changed for many Americans. A meal may now mean a fancy coffee drink, or a candy bar and a diet soft drink.

Thirty-five percent of the survey respondents (2,000 American consumers) eat two or fewer square meals per day. Only 42 percent said that they had a "well-balanced diet."

National food chains from McDonald's to Starbucks are looking for more ways to take advantage of the grazing craze with new products.

Three factors pushed more and more Americans to graze: Time-pressed lifestyles leave no time to cook; cars have become mobile dining rooms; and many young people eat and surf the net at the same time.

Are you thirsty rather than hungry? Since it's easy to confuse the signals for hunger and thirst, try drinking a refreshing glass of water before you dig into a snack. People who stay hydrated with regular fluid breaks tend to snack less and consume fewer calories.

3. Check your portion size.

Most super-sized snacks are loaded with fat, sugar and calories. To avoid the portion distortion trap, start with a small size or share a biggie size with a friend. For even more control over your portions, carry small amounts in sandwich bags from home.

4. Check food labels and facts.

What you don't know can come as a surprise to your waistline. Three hundred-plus calories in a nutrition bar? Four hundred-plus calories in a latte? Six hundred-plus calories in a fancy cinnamon bun? Look for the information you want on labels, in restaurant nutrition brochures, or on Web sites.

5. Pay attention to your snack.

It's easy to overeat and still not feel satisfied if you eat while driving, reading or watching TV. If you want to get the most pleasure out of any food, slow down and really savor it. You might eat less and you will certainly enjoy it more.

6. Pay attention to protein.

Many snack foods are low in protein, as well as high in sugar and fat. Foods with protein (meat, dairy, nuts and soy) provide more nutrients and longer staying power than straight carbs. The highest-octane combo is a whole grain carbohydrate with a lean protein.

7. Grab some nuts.

A small handful of nuts (about an ounce) can satisfy your craving for something salty, and provide nutrition (vitamins, minerals and protein) at the same time. Combine your favorite nuts with whole grain cereal, dried fruit or soynuts for high-energy trail mix.

8. Grab some veggies.

Nature's fast food makes an excellent on-the-run snack. Keep sliced veggies ready to go in the fridge, and fill up a small bag whenever you head out the door. Add a slice or stick of cheese and you've got a delicious-nutritious, protein-carbohydrate combo.

9. Grab some fruit.

Feeling like something sweet and flavorful? Fresh, dried and canned, fruit is a luscious treat anytime of day. Fresh fruit makes a super snack, and most of it comes in its own edible packaging. Like canned fruit? Keep several single-serve fruit choices at hand.

10. Grab a power drink.

Soft drinks offer little except excess calories and caffeine. Looking for a snack with some real liquid energy? Try low-fat or fat-free milk and help build beautiful bones and teeth at the same time.

Registered dietitian Dayle Hayes is a nutritionist and consultant to Deaconess Billings Clinic and Eat Right Montana. You can contact her at 655-9082 or Hayes' past Gazette columns are available at:

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