trail mix, mix, walnut kernels

Is trail mix healthy?

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Trail mix is an excellent snack, if you make a good choice. Here, I’ll give you some tips on general things to consider about trail mix, as well as possible healthy and not-so-healthy qualities of this food.

Calories in trail mix

It’s good to keep in mind that this is generally a relatively high-calorie food. If your trail mix is made up of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate, it will deliver a hefty amount of energy. Other relatively high-calorie ingredients include coconut flakes and various types of seeds. This is not a problem, as long as you are aware of portion size.

You might expect to find 150 to 200 calories in a small serving of trail mix, depending on the ingredients. If you find that controlling your portion size is a problem, there are some varieties that come in single-serving packages that may be a good option.

Healthy qualities of trail mix

Antioxidants. If your trail mix has dried fruit such as blueberries and cranberries, this is a plus for health. These contain antioxidants, which help protect against disease. Other brightly-colored fruit such as goji berries are also a great source.

Heart-healthy fat. Nuts contain a hefty dose of unsaturated fat, which is beneficial for heart health. If your trail mix contains walnuts, you will get some omega-3 fats out of your snack. Omega-3 fats have many different functions in the body. Trail mix might also have other items such as sesame sticks or corn nuts mixed in, which also contain heart-healthy fat.

Fiber. Both dried fruit and nuts contain fiber. Fiber is important for so many reasons, including to help us maintain a healthy weight, have healthy digestion, and maintain heart health.

One of the reasons fiber helps to control weight is that it slows the emptying of food from the stomach into the small intestine, extending the feeling of fullness following a meal. Another reason is that fiber provides little in the way of energy, as it passes through the body undigested. 

In terms of healthy digestion, fiber softens stools to promote regular bowel movements. Fiber helps to speed the movement of material through the digestive tract, decreasing the risk of a host of problems, such as constipation. Enough fiber in the diet helps decrease the risk of conditions such as hemorrhoids and diverticulosis. 
In terms of heart health, soluble fiber has been shown to reduce the “bad” LDL cholesterol, thereby helping to decrease cardiovascular risk.

If you’d like even more ideas besides trail mix as to how to get enough fiber, I provide a lot of suggestions in this post.

Protein. Nuts also contain protein, which, along with fiber, gives us a feeling of fullness after eating. Getting protein from plant-source foods is generally beneficial for health, as foods like nuts also provide healthy fat, fiber and important vitamins and minerals. Trail mix generally doesn’t contain a huge amount of protein, but should at least have a few grams per serving. If you choose trail mix with ingredients such as soy nuts, that’s a good way to get a little extra in.

Not-so-healthy qualities of trail mix

Artificial color

Many brands of trail mix contain artificial color–these may include blue lake 1, yellow 6, red 40 lake, and many others. We have no dietary need for these color additives, and questions still remain about potential harms to health.

Added sugar

You may think the dried fruit in the trail mix is a great choice, but this is one of the places sugar may hide. Dried blueberries and cranberries, while a great source of antioxidants, might also contain a lot of sugar.

Some brands are more obvious in terms of sugar content. Just by looking at the name of the caramel cashew trail mix offered at Target, you can assume it contains some sugar. Upon further examination, you can see that the first ingredient is chocolate caramel balls, and the first ingredient in the milk chocolate in those is sugar. To make it worse, the next ingredient after the caramel balls is sugar. There are 15g of sugar in a small ¼ cup serving. This product also contains artificial flavor and color, and has very little fiber.

There are some brands of trail mix that do not contain any added sugar–one brand I particularly like has coconut and different types of unsweetened berries. While it does not contain added sugar, it does still taste sweet and gives a sense of satisfaction. 

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If your diet contains added sugar from a lot of other foods, it’s definitely a good idea to see how you can reduce that. Added sugar is a source of empty calories, meaning that it only provides energy without any other nutritional value. Too much added sugar might lead to a diet that is deficient in essential nutrients and may also contribute to weight gain. I explain the benefits of reducing added sugar intake in this blog post.

Artificial flavors

We have no dietary requirement for these additives, and given that there is trail mix on the market that does not contain these, I prefer to avoid them. Recently, the FDA removed seven synthetic flavors from the food additive list given evidence that they caused cancer in animals exposed to high doses. While the FDA deems them safe at the level humans consume them, it may be wise to steer clear.

Have questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!

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