How to snack for breakfast, lunch or dinner — and stay healthy 

North America is under a snack attack -- and the snacks are winning! Seems more and more of you are substituting grab-and-go foods for real meals. In fact, snacking is up 15 percent as quick munching replaces breakfast, lunch or dinner for almost half of you. But finding healthy snack foods can be tough -- one reason ?Americans ended up spending $48 billion a year on salty or sugary munchables, three times more than they spent on fruit and vegetables. That's a lot of buck for very little nutritional bang!

Now nothing replaces the nutritional and emotional benefits of a sit-down meal with the family, but everyone has to eat on the run occasionally. So here's how you can grab a snack as a meal that provides you with the fuel you need to do your best at work, school, home and play.

1. Make sure your snacky meals deliver what you need. Depriving yourself of fuel and nutrients in a snacky meal, then OVEREATING to make up for it later, is a formula for weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. That's why it is important to make sure your "snack as a meal" provides 400 calories from a mix of protein (about 12 grams per meal for women; 15-18 for men) and complex carbs (from beans, fruits, whole grains and greens). That'll give you the minerals and vitamins you need, too.

2. Stock your fridge, freezer and pantry with easy grab-and-go foods. Keep unsalted nuts, dried fruit without added sweeteners and nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew) on hand. In the fridge, stock seasonal fruits and veggies you love, along with nonfat yogurt, hummus, low-fat cheese and whole-grain bread or small whole-grain pitas or tortilla wraps. In the freezer, keep frozen fruit (strawberries, raspberries and mango chunks) and veggies (bags of frozen kale, edamame and peas). Keep countertop goodies like ground flax seeds, roasted sunflower or sesame seeds, bananas, tomatoes and avocados handy, too.

3. Breakfast snacking. Whirl up a smoothie in 30 seconds to take on your commute -- combine fresh or frozen fruit, yogurt, kale, unsweetened almond or soy milk and a little flax seed. Toss together a half-ounce of nuts and a half-ounce of dried fruit in a baggie; eat it with a piece of fresh fruit. Or spread almond butter on a whole-grain tortilla, top with banana slices, sprinkle with raisins and cinnamon, then roll and go!

4. Lunch snacking. Put an easy-open pouch of tuna in water, prewashed greens, avocado chunks and a drizzle of dressing made from olive oil and lemon juice into a tightly sealed container. Mash beans on a tortilla, top with tomato, avocado and cheese, fold it up and tuck into a sandwich bag. Toss eat-and-run sides into your lunch bag, too -- like fresh fruit, baby carrots, red pepper and zucchini strips (cut in advance and keep in your fridge.) You can enjoy it at your desk -- IF AND ONLY IF you make a point of standing up and walking around every hour for at least five minutes.

5. Dinner snacking. Not home at dinnertime? Try this make-ahead snack: Zucchini chips. Blot thinly sliced zucchini rounds with a paper towel; toss with a little olive oil and sea salt. Bake at 400 F for 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool, then re-bake at 350 F for extra crunch. Store in individual-size zip-lock baggies for portability. Enjoy them with grab-n-go broiled chicken tenders, seasoned with sriracha or a nonfat yogurt dill and cucumber sauce.

E-CIGARETTE DANGERS

Q: My husband has been puffing on e-cigarettes for over a year, and he's pretty much given up tobacco. I'm grateful, but I'd like him to give up the gadget, too. Can you give me some ammunition? -- Audrey S., Saugerties, N.Y.

A: Absolutely. E-cigarettes are not harmless, although they are currently unregulated. Different brands and types of e-cigs contain varying levels of toxins. A new study for the Japanese Ministry of Health found that some e-cig vapors contained 10 times more formaldehyde than regular tobacco smoke, and formaldehyde is a very potent carcinogen. Puffing a lot on the device can overwork the heating element, releasing additional toxins (there even have been reports of e-cigarettes exploding).

A University of South California study found that some e-cigarettes contain four times more nickel than tobacco cigarettes, plus chromium (which is not found in regular smokes). Replacement cartridges may contain lead, zinc and other toxic metals. Although they are found at lower levels than in tobacco cigarettes, they're still NOT good for you!

E-cigarettes have been around for only seven years, so we don't have long-term study results on smoking them or on the dangers of second- and third-hand e-vapors. (Even so, the World Health Organization has called for an indoor ban on e-cigarettes.) Until we get that solid data, you can bet there are going to be lots of dubious claims about e-cig virtues. I don't know if you remember, but before studies proved conclusively that all brands of tobacco cigarettes caused lung cancer and other health problems, advertisements claimed, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," and "20,679 physicians say Lucky Strikes are less irritating."

Quit-smoking techniques help with e-cigs and nicotine addiction, too. So ask your husband to look at the smoking-cessation help offered online. Hopefully your husband can use this move away from tobacco as an opportunity to slam the door on his smoking habit for good.

WHY EXTRA 15 POUNDS CAN CAUSE HEART TROUBLES

Q: I'm 40 years old, but my doctor says I'm at risk for heart problems! I thought that before menopause women were protected from those sorts of issues. I'm only a little overweight (15 pounds), and I don't think of myself as unhealthy. Is my doctor just trying to stir up business? -- Sally G., Medina, Ohio

A: We would say that your doctor is trying to save your life. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. And while it's true that traditionally we thought premenopausal women were protected from heart disease, that was before the epidemic of obesity and diabetes changed women's health equation. In fact, among women 35 to 44, there hasn't been the same kind of reduction in heart-attack-associated deaths that we've seen recently among other age groups. That's an attention-getter, because we'd expect this younger group of women (yours) to be much more likely to have made such improvements. But YOU can!

A recent study looked at info on more than 69,000 women and found that in your age group, an astounding 75 percent of heart attacks could be prevented by following these smart-living steps:

1. Not smoking. 2. Maintaining a normal body mass index. (Sorry, Sally, 15 extra pounds DOES matter.) 3. Getting 2.5 hours of physical activity per week. 4. Having no more than one alcoholic drink a day. 5. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables daily.

Clear the pantry of prepared foods with added sugars or syrups and all grains that aren't 100 percent whole, and make healthy eating a fun family project. Restock your kitchen with fresh fruits, veggies and ONLY lean protein from skinless chicken and fish (salmon and ocean trout are especially healthy). And then make physical activity fun for the whole family. Take a walk together after dinner and do action video games (Wii Fit or Dance Dance Revolution). This is your opportunity to achieve a younger RealAge. Go for it!

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