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HOW TO BUILD A BETTER MUSCLE-BUILDING TRAIL MIX

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Whether you’re at a party, in the gym, or on the road, trail mix is great snacking option. Its nutrient-dense ingredients offer sustained energy and appetite control while keeping blood sugar levels in check. But not all trail mixes are created equal, and you must keep a watchful eye on the harmful ingredients that lurk in many pre-packaged mixes in the form of excess salt, added sugars, and empty calories.

When assembled correctly, trail mix can offer a plethora of beneficial nutrients, including heart-healthy fats, muscle-building protein, cholesterol-lowering fiber, and disease-fighting antioxidants. Instead of taking a risk on store-bought trail mix, buy the individual ingredients and assemble it yourself using the following information. Just be sure to portion out large batches into smaller, sealable plastic snack bags—contrary to popular belief, you can have too much of a good thing.

1. Nuts

The foundation of any good trail mix starts with nuts. Nuts are jam-packed with protein and healthy monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, but don’t overdo it because they’re loaded with calories. So choose to stick to about a half-ounce of nuts per serving of trail mix.

2. Seeds

Small but mighty, seeds also pack a serious amount of protein and healthy fats into a little package, but they’re often overlooked. Luckily, you don’t have to choose one over the other when building a better trail mix.

Great options for seeds that are large enough in size to not get lost at the bottom of a bag or bowl include sunflower and pumpkin seeds or pepitas—the green inside kernel of pumpkin seeds.  Pumpkin seeds and pepitas are one of the richest plant-based sources of iron, which is important for metabolizing proteins and the production of healthy red blood cells.

Nutrient-dense seeds aren’t always light on calories, so stick to about a quarter- to a half-ounce of seeds per serving of trail mix. Again, look for seeds that are raw or dry-roasted, and unsalted or lightly salted.

3. Dried Fruit

Dried fruit is an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and can be a healthy solution to curbing a sweet tooth. During the dehydration process, some beneficial nutrients can become more concentrated. In fact, research shows that the antioxidants in raisins, plums, and dried cranberries are twice as potent as those in their fresh counterparts. But keep in mind, this also means that less beneficial nutrients like sugar can become more concentrated as well.

Dried fruits are a fraction of the size of their fresh equivalents, but still contain almost the same amount of calories and sugar, so it’s important to consume in moderation. Whether you stick with classic mix-ins like raisins and dried cranberries or are feeling a bit adventurous and go with dried mango, be sure to choose unsweetened varieties.

Check the ingredient label to make sure added sweeteners and sulfite preservatives aren’t present, and make sure the fruit itself is the only ingredient listed. To keep sugar and calories in check, limit dried fruit pieces to about 1-2Tbsp per serving.

4. Grains

Grains make a wonderful addition to any trail mix because they can add more bulk with fewer calories to the already-calorie-dense, low-volume nut, seed, and dried fruit mixture. They’re also a great source of fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels and keeps you feeling full without filling you out.

Throw in some lower-calorie items like air-popped popcorn or whole-grain cereal instead of sugar-laden granola. The amount of grains you add to your trail mix will vary based upon which grain you choose. A cup of air-popped popcorn contains only 31 calories per cup, whereas a cup of Cheerios or Fiber One whole-grain wheat cereal varies from 100-120 calories. Fat-free mini pretzels and pretzel sticks can also add volume to a trail mix without upping the calories too much. Twenty mini-pretzels or 55 pretzel sticks comes in at just over 100 calories.

5. Extras (optional)

These are optional, but can add a little something extra to a lackluster trail mix. Throw in some unsweetened flaked coconut, roasted chickpeas, or even homemade veggie chips.

If chocolate is your Achilles heel, choose plain (not candy-coated) and dark varieties that contain at least 60% cocoa. You could also sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder. Keep in mind, these extras add calories.

For some guilt-free extras, add cinnamon, nutmeg, or pumpkin pie spice to a sweet mix, or add cayenne pepper or chili powder to a savory mix for a little kick.

6. Recipes

The Classic: Peanuts + sunflower seeds + raisins + mini pretzels + dark chocolate chips

The Classy: Almonds + pepitas + dried cranberries + Kashi® GOLEAN® Original cereal + pumpkin pie spice

The Spicy: Mixed nuts + pepitas + dried mango + pretzel sticks + chili powder

The Beach Bum: Brazil nuts + sunflower seeds + dried pineapple + banana chips + popcorn + flaked coconut

The Health Nut: Cashews + flax seeds + dried apples + Cheerios® + cinnamon

The Energizer: Walnuts + pumpkin seeds + dried goji berries + bran flakes + cocoa powder

BY CHARLOTTE MARTIN, R.D.