Geeks love to eat and drink. When you’re crunching away on a keyboard (or three) all day, a little extra nourishment can go a long way to keep you awake, motivated, and productive. The correlation between geeks and snacking is as well documented as it is true.
Now, I’m not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination. It could be said that I’m one of the biggest snackers here at LockerGnome, but there are a few tips I’ve picked up on the way that have helped me avoid some of the more tempting (and fatty) snack foods and beverages that fit right in on a geek’s desk.
Keep in mind while reading this that I am not, nor do I claim to be, a health expert. I have spoken with and interviewed several health experts over the past few years and have some personal experiences that have helped me make better choices. This isn’t a preachy piece, nor is it one that intends to demonize any of these products. Rather, I’d like to start a discussion as to what types of snacks geeks love and whether or not these often sugary sweets can be substituted with healthier (relatively speaking) alternatives.
A Brief Word on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Before I go into this brief list, I want to say something about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Scientists have debated over the facts and myths of this common junk food ingredient for years. It’s a sugary additive that’s made its way into almost every area of the American diet. Through a process, fructose is created from natural glucose in corn which produces a sweet flavor.
Corn is cheaper to produce than table sugar in the U.S. Though it is more processed than natural sugars, it can be produced in mass quantities with less tax overhead. HFCS is produced in different stages of sweetness based on the fructose/glucose levels. These levels are represented in a number associated with the ingredient. For example, HFCS 90 has a 90/10 fructose/glucose density.
Health concerns are debatable, though it stands to reason that a highly caloric sweetener such as high fructose corn syrup would contribute in some way to obesity and its associated ailments. Much of this processed and refined product comes from genetically modified corn, a common find on U.S. farms. In recent years, studies have started to report links between health issues such as organ failure and GMO corn.
While I’m no health expert, it’s safe to assume that processed foods aren’t necessarily the best things for you to eat, especially sugary ones that provide no genuine nutritional value.
Sodas are a staple of the typical geek diet. Of the hundreds of options out there, few have the universal recognition for flavor and geek cred as Mountain Dew. Containing both HCFS and other ingredients associated with negative side effects including tartrazine, this carbonated beverage does little to provide any actual nutrition to your body.
It does, however, give you an increase in energy by way of HCFS and caffeine. Caffeine, another popular ingredient in the geek diet, has side effects including insomnia
and daytime drowsiness. In a sense, it’s addictive because your body depends on that “high” to function at capacity.
Even more scary is the use of sodium benzoate, a common preservative used in processed foods. When combined with ascorbic acid (found in vitamin C), it becomes benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen. This alone wouldn’t be a big deal, except Mountain Dew lists orange juice among its ingredients, a known source of vitamin C.
Millions of people drink Mountain Dew, and there isn’t an outbreak of Mountain Dew illness going around, but that’s no reason to consider it a healthy beverage. In fact, if you do an image search for Mountain Dew teeth, you’ll become acutely aware of the long-term effects of drinking highly acidic soft drinks.
While not tasting the same, there are several drink combinations out there that provide a little more nutritional value with less of the chemical overhead. Combining orange juice with a sparkling water such as Perrier or Pellegrino will create a carbonated drink that combines the natural nutritional value of orange juice with the relatively additive-free and mineral rich flavor of sparkling water.
Seltzer is also a great sodium-free alternative that can be mixed with one or several other ingredients to create a mixed drink you might enjoy.
Moving past carbonation, even a glass of tap water can taste even better with a slice of lemon or lime in it. Tea is a popular natural caffeine source that doesn’t carry the science experiment reputation of soda.
Oh, and diet soda is not a healthy alternative to anything. Yes, the calories are less, but you’re still filling your body with something that provides zero nutritional value, and contains quite a bit of the same ingredients that scientists are debating over right now. If you must drink a soda, seek out an organic or natural soda alternative with minimal ingredients and a better reputation. Real sugar, though still very caloric, is a small step in the right direction. Hansen’s Soda, for example, is brewed with natural, organic ingredients that taste just as good, if not better.
Cheesy and delicious, these little orange bits are among the tastiest and most beloved additions to the geek diet. Who doesn’t love Cheetos, I mean, really?
So, here’s the deal with them. Containing no less than four food dyes, Cheetos is far from a naturally occurring edible. In fact, it’s another science experiment food cooked up by a processing plant from refined ingredients that don’t really have any actual nutritional value beyond perhaps a bit of protein and potassium.
One serving of Cheetos gives you 150 calories, 80 of which come directly from 9 grams of fat. The production process consists of taking cornmeal (there’s corn again) and heats it up by way of friction until it expands into the puffy shapes you see in the bag. From that point, they’re fried, dried, sprayed, and packed into bags you buy in the grocery store.
Healthy is relative in this case, but there are some alternatives to the big-name processed food that include natural ingredients and actual vitamin content. Michael Season’s has a variety of different Cheeto alternatives that are wheat and gluten-free with 65% less fat than Cheetos.
Everybody loves pizza, but this often grease and fat-dripping snack can do a number on your waistline, and your heart. Greasy pepperoni and cheap cheeses are all over the major pizza chains as they cut costs and attempt to keep up with price demands of consumers. Small pizzerias have to compete too, and often need to cut corners to keep costs down.
Not all pizza is bad for you. In fact, there are some very healthy pizza selections out there (even at the chains) that can offer terrific flavor without a lot of the fat and calories.
Try pizza with a thin crush rather than hand tossed or deep dish options. Thin crusts can cut down your carbohydrate calories considerably, and leave room for some of the more flavorful ingredients. Avoid pizza chains that rub everything in butter and sprinkle gritty cheese all over every inch of the pie. Yes, that may taste good, but you can also feel your heart clogging with every bite.
Consider trying a healthier blend of ingredients, and making your own pie at home. Organics are great because they get you away from harmful chemicals and pesticides. Substituting regular pepperoni for a low-fat variety can help.
Consider ordering a margherita, turkey, grilled chicken, or vegetarian pizza instead of one packed with fatty meats.
Oh man, I love bacon. Bacon is really, really delicious and everything is better with a little bacon on it. Geek-inspired bacon products abound, including bacon flavored popcorn and bacon salt. Yes, the flavor is fantastic, though the health concerns associated with eating what amounts to a fried fatty meat product can do little to improve your figure or life span.
Bacon contains a lot of sodium, nitrates, and fat. These are three things that may be fine in moderation, but could cause problems down the road with regular intake. Sodium nitrate has been linked to several types of cancer, making it a less appetizing part of a regular diet.
Consider trying turkey or vegetarian bacon instead of traditional pork. Turkey bacon can provide a lot of the same flavor with much less greasy and fat. Some brands of turkey bacon actually cut the fat and caloric values down by as much as 65% or more. This is pretty impressive. Wouldn’t you want to eat 65% more bacon?
Red Vines may or may not be the preferred treat over Twizzlers, but it’s certainly one of my favorite. Red Vines contain a fructose-rich corn syrup as a primary ingredient. While they are fat-free, they still contain some of the ingredients that concern health nuts.
There is some good news here. Sugar free Red Vines don’t actually contain aspartame or sucralose, but maltitol. Maltitol is a sugar substitute derived from alcohol. While it isn’t free of calories, it does have reduced caloric properties without promoting tooth decay or a dramatic impact on your blood sugar levels.
The downside: maltitol is a known laxative when consumed in large quantities. If you put an entire bag of sugar-free Red Vines down range, you might want to make sure there’s a restroom handy.
What about you? What are your favorite geek snack? Is it healthy?