What to avoid
Tempting as that 4:00 guilty pleasure might be, try to avoid heavily processed snacks in general. They do not provide lasting fuel for your body, and, if regularly consumed, can lead to weight gain, hypertension and other health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The biggest vendor offender, according to the staff of Fitness Magazine, are fruit pies, which give you a whallop of fat, calories, refined white flour and sugar. They may taste good, but the only once-decent thing about them is the fruit, which has been processed down to a glop of sugary, fruit-flavored goo inside that empty-calorie, deep-fried shell. And think twice, too, about cheese-filled crackers. You may think you're getting some protein for your snack dollar, but the extra sodium and fat isn't worth it. Too much sodium in your diet for too long can lead to hypertension, or high blood pressure, which has the potential to lead to stroke or heart disease.
Are candy bars your thing? The blood sugar lift you'd hoped for won't last long, and will leave you fatigued and crabby as that spike comes crashing down. Lots of people go for potato chips and doughnuts, but even short-term consumption of high-fat food can compromise your brain's cognitive function. Just the thing you need before a class or an important work task.
The good stuff
Choosing a healthy snack from a vending machine can be a dicey matter because you usually can't read the label on the treat behind the window. Trail mix can sound like a healthy snack, but what's often sold in vending machines are multiple-serving bags, some containing M&Ms or loads of dried fruit, so you might consume more fat and calories than you'd intended.
Baked potato chips may be low in fat, and a tasty alternative to regular chips, but they're high in chemicals and don't offer your body much other than a bit of fiber.
For better alternatives, consider plain granola bars or small packages of unsalted nuts, particularly almonds. Sunflower seeds are also good, but look for unsalted varieties. Seeds and nuts provide protein and healthy fats, and won't blow your diet if consumed in small portions. Share with a colleague or put the rest in a sealable bag or container for later.
If you're lucky, your school or workplace may have refrigerated vending machines that offer healthier snacks, like fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt or cut-up veggies. Some companies are working on machines with separate-temperature compartments for different foods, and ways to keep fresh fruit and vegetables fresher.
With money in your fist and rumbling in your stomach, it may be hard to avoid unhealthy food in vending machines. But if you take a deep breath and consider your options, you may find it easier to choose a more nutritious alternative.
Photos courtesy of iStock.com
Fitness Magazine.com, "10 Healthy (and 10 Terrible!) Vending Machine Snacks" https://www.fitnessmagazine.com/recipes/snacks/healthy/vending-machine-snacks/
Wall Street Journal.com, "The Great Banana Challenge" https://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303550904575562480804057778.html
Self.com, "Machine Cuisine" https://www.self.com/fooddiet/2009/06/healthy-vending-machine-snacks
Fitday.com, "Junk Food's Effect on your Body" https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/fast-food-nutrition-junk-foods-effect-on-your-body.html