by Joe Wilkes

Fall is upon us, which means that the new TV season has begun, baseball is heading into the postseason, and football has started up. The weather’s getting cooler and the couch is calling for you to lay down in it with a warm blanket. Now keep in mind, we’re not encouraging any couch potato behavior. We’d prefer that you pop in a Power 90® video and use the couch as a towel rack. But we’re all human, and it’s almost impossible to resist the siren song of a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game or the return of Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives. Just because you’re taking a couple of hours off to flatten your gluteal muscles and sofa cushions doesn’t mean you have to stuff yourself with chips and cookies or other bagged diet killers. Here are 10 tasty and healthy snacks that are great for TV downtime.

Popcorn. It’s not just for the movie theater anymore. In fact, you’re better off skipping it at the movie theater. A bucket of oil-popped movie theater popcorn can contain as much fat as three to five double cheeseburgers. But air-popped popcorn is a pretty benign treat. Three cups of popcorn have just 93 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Air-popped popcorn doesn’t have much nutritive value outside of the energy you may get from the calories and some dietary fiber, but it can satisfy your munchies without getting you too far off the diet path. The best popcorn comes from your own hot-air popper—offering no additional fat or salt, unless you add it later. If you’re going for microwave convenience, make sure you read the label carefully. Even some of the “healthy” brands contain a fair amount of fat and salt. And many microwave brands contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been linked to cancer. You might be better off making your own microwave popcorn. Just put a 1/4 cup of popcorn into a brown lunch bag and fold the top over tightly and microwave at your usual popcorn setting. Try to avoid salt and butter. Instead, enjoy your favorite herbs, or a squeeze of lemon juice with some garlic powder or cayenne pepper.

Bean dip. Beans are a great source of protein and fiber and don’t have tons of calories. One cup of canned pintos only has 206 calories; it also has 12 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber—almost half of your recommended daily allowance. And beans are incredibly filling. Even prepackaged bean dips are pretty decent (of course, always check the label for the fat and sodium content). You can make your own dips, hot or cold, by food-processing canned black or pinto beans (my favorites are the ones canned with jalapeños). Add water to create your desired consistency, or you can also use fat-free refried beans. You could add some chopped bell or jalapeño peppers, green onions, or canned corn to add a crunchy texture or some chopped tomatoes for a little extra flavor and vitamins. Instead of fatty tortilla chips, use baked chips, or, better yet, some raw, crunchy veggies, like carrots, celery, sliced bell peppers, broccoli, or cauliflower. And if “beans, beans, the musical fruit” make you a little too musical, you might take a look at Linda York’s article below on ginger’s degasifying properties.

Salsa. This is the perfect mix of tomatoes, onions, and peppers—all members of the top tier of Michi’s Ladder. And the great thing is that salsa is so low in calories and so high in fiber, you can basically eat it by the cupful and not gain weight. If you buy it at the store though, watch out for the salt content—that’s the secret ingredient in most canned and jarred salsas. You’re much better off making your own pico de gallo. Just dice tomatoes and onions and mix with as much minced jalapeño and/or garlic as you can stand. Add fresh cilantro, salt, and pepper to taste and toss the veggies in the juice of two limes. Let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving. You can eat it with baked chips or the crunchy veggies that also go great with the bean dip. The salsa and the bean dip also complement each other well, for the double dippers among us.

Crispbread crackers. These crunchy treats (including Wasa and Rykrisp brands) have around 30 calories a cracker (depending on the brand, flavor, and style) and a couple of grams of fiber in each one. And they make great bases for you to play Top Chef with some healthy ingredients from your refrigerator. Try a dollop of fat-free cottage cheese with a dash of hot sauce; a slice of turkey breast and roasted red pepper; a “schmear” of hummus and a couple of pitted olives; or a slice of tomato and a fresh basil leaf with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Even the pico de gallo recipe above with some shredded nonfat cheddar will make a tasty treat. By being creative with some wholesome ingredients, you’ll forget all about the halcyon days of eating Ritz crackers washed down with aerosol cheese right from the can (sigh).

Pistachios. Pistachios are a great heart-healthy snack full of antioxidants, fiber, and unsaturated fats (the good kind). A 1/2-cup serving (with the shells, assuming you don’t eat them) only has 170 calories, with 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber; however, that serving also has 14 grams of fat, so don’t go nuts chowing down on a whole bag. Walnuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds, pecans, and other nuts all have their nutritional upsides, too, but the reason I think pistachios make great snacks are the shells. The shells are difficult to open, so rather than shoveling handfuls of pre-shelled nuts down your throat, eat shelled pistachios so that you’re forced to slow down. Keep an eye on the sodium content when you buy the nuts. Either buy unsalted or low-salt versions. And forget those disgusting pink ones that taste like lipstick. Who needs to leave hot-pink fingerprints all over the couch? A lot of stores also sell flavored versions that aren’t too salty. Chili-lime is one of my favorite flavors.

Edamame. The Japanese have one of the healthiest diets in the world and soybeans are a great staple of that diet. Edamame, the steamed or boiled soybean pods, contain all the essential amino acids, many essential fatty acids, and soy isoflavones. And a 1/2 cup of beans only contains 100 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 9 grams of carbs, with 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Truly one of nature’s perfect foods. And like pistachios, you can serve them in their shells, which slows down your face stuffing, giving you time to feel full before you’ve overeaten.

Mini-pizzas. Forget the frozen food section. Anyone with a toaster oven or a broiler pan can be their own Mama Celeste or Chef Boy-ar-dee. Just take half of a whole-wheat English muffin (67 calories; 2 grams of fiber), add a little tomato sauce or low-sodium pizza or spaghetti sauce and a sprinkle of low-fat or nonfat mozzarella cheese, and voilà—tasty and healthy pizza! Like with the crispbread crackers, your imagination’s the only limit for toppings. Fresh herbs like basil and oregano are delicious. Peppers, mushrooms, and anchovies are popular and fairly healthy. Just stay away from processed meats like pepperoni which are often loaded with saturated fat, carcinogenic nitrates, and sodium.

Pita chips and hummus. Now you can open a Greek taverna in your living room. While some stores sell pita chips now, you can easily make your own with very little fuss and muss (and usually with much less fat and salt). A large whole-wheat pita has 170 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and less than 2 grams of fat. To make chips, cut around the edge of the pita with a small paring knife, so you have two discs. Then with a knife or pizza cutter, cut the discs into eighths or smaller chip-size pieces. Arrange the pieces on an aluminum foil-covered cookie sheet, lightly spray with some olive oil cooking spray, and sprinkle with a little salt or low-fat parmesan cheese or your favorite dried herbs. Cook in the oven or toaster oven until lightly browned and crispy and serve with your favorite hummus or dip recipe (click here for a hummus recipe and some other healthy dip ideas).

Relish tray.
Some of my favorite snacks are pickled or brined anything—cucumbers, cauliflower, peppers, artichoke hearts, carrots, okra, baby corn, cornichons, cocktail onions, olives, sauerkraut, kimchi . . . even herring and hard-boiled eggs! Extremely low in calories, a plate full of pickled veggies on the coffee table is great for snacking. But watch out for the sodium! Certain store brands have more than others. The more ambitious might try marinating their fresh veggies in vinegar and a little heart-healthy olive oil, to control the amount of salt involved. If you use salty brands, you might consider rinsing them to get rid of some of the salt, or mixing them on a plate with some fresh, unpickled vegetables to mitigate the salt intake.

Deviled eggs. Eggs, having once been considered a scourge of the heart-healthy diet, are now getting a better rap (see “The Good, the Bad, and the Eggly” for more on the ins and outs of eggs). What’s indisputable is the health value of the whites. If you take the yolks out of the equation, the egg whites can prove to be small healthy, high-protein delivery systems suitable for all kinds of nutritious creamy fillings. Cut a bunch of hard-boiled eggs in half, lengthwise, and scoop out and discard the yolks. Try mixing some nonfat cottage cheese with your favorite mix of mustard, curry powder, garlic, paprika, pepper, salt, or other spices and blending or food-processing until creamy. Spoon or pipe the mixture into the egg whites where the yolks used to be and you’ll have a high-protein snack without the fat and cholesterol. You can also use the empty egg whites as scoops for your favorite healthy dip or salsa.

Of course, you can enjoy even more snack food if you can work some exercise into your TV watching. During playoff season, don’t just save the stretching for the seventh inning. Try some exercises like Debbie Siebers’ Slim in 6® Slim and Limber throughout the game. Or if you’re settling in for a night in front of the tube, make a deal with yourself—you can veg out and watch The Office and 30 Rock if you turn off Scrubs (come on, it jumped the shark two seasons ago) and do Shaun T’s Hip Hop Abs™ Fat Burning Cardio instead. If you have a show like Heroes that motivates you to kick some butt, schedule some Turbo Jam® time immediately after the show while your adrenaline’s still pumping. Or if, like me, you’ve become enslaved to your DVR or TiVo, use it to your advantage and do a cooldown stretch to your favorite show as a reward for a well-done workout

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