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You Vs. The Vending Machine

Illustration by Angelica Alzona.

It’s late afternoon, the workday is over halfway done, and you feel a familiar rumble. The salad you’d had for lunch wasn’t very satisfying, was it? So you gather your wallet or spare desk change, go down the hall, and amble right up to that backlit hurdle that separates the fit from the fit-ish: the vending machine.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with snacking—in fact, most dietitians believe that snacking is a good way to maintain a healthy weight—the offerings in the average office vending machine leave a lot to be desired. Most of the snacks are too fatty, salty, or sugary to be considered a healthy choice. It seems that everyone craps their pants when vending machines are stacked with garbage that cause kids to eat unhealthily, but no one seems to care about adults or their healthy snacking needs. There’s even a good amount of evidence out there that shows that having only healthy vending machine choices will lead to better diets overall, but getting there will take time. But, hey, you don’t want to live in a nanny state. I don’t want to live in a nanny state either—so here we are.


Vending machines offer calories at a discount. Why go out and spend more money than necessary on a fruit cup just to have your desk infested with flies and fungus in a month? What you’re looking for in a decent snack, generally, is a small meal that’s around 200 calories. (This assuming if you’re a fairly active, average person with around a 2,000-calorie diet.) That’s easy enough to find in a vending machine, but you want to make those calories count! Snacks with more protein help you maintain muscle mass and strong bones. Snacks that are high in fiber will help you feel more full and keep your digestive system in good shape. A couple hundred empty calories don’t do anything but give you a temporary boost of energy and keep the rumblies away, without adding much nutritional value. One wayward snack won’t kill you, of course, but if it becomes a habit, and those afternoon chips become a daily occurrence, you could very well start seeing some negative results.

Hey, let’s give this vending machine thing a shot—surely there’s something redeemable we can find for about a dollar!

Row 1: The Chips

Oh, boy. Calorie Count—a generally reliable nutrition-info website, that also gives foods a “rating” based on their overall nutritional value—gives almost all of these snack-size bags a “C” grade, which I guess is technically passing. The first row of an average vending machine is the one that’s got Lay’s on Lay’s on Lay’s: sea salt, barbecue, sour cream and onion, maybe just the regular ol’ potato chip flavor, if those still exist. If we measure each serving as an ounce, each serving has about 160 calories. That’s about 17 chips, 160 empty calories, with no fiber, protein, or vitamins to benefit you, and plenty of sodium to make your kidneys work overtime. The the best option for a low-impact snack among the chips here would have to be any sort of “baked” variety, which has a few less calories in the package. Still, not a whole lot of good nutrition in this row.


Row 2: Ugh, More Chips. But Other Crunchy Things, Too!

Look at that, there are more Lay’s—maybe the wavy ones, or the cheddar flavored ones. Usually these are interspersed with other crunchy things—here you’ll find the Sun Chips (a middle-school favorite of mine) and pretzels, for example. Maybe they’ve got Cheez-Its—which taste more like a block of salt than cheese—and Cheese Doodles. (I’m picturing a theme.) Still, there aren’t any strong junk-food options for a low-impact cheesy snack, I’m afraid. Cheese Doodles put you at 150 calories per ounce and over 8 grams of fat, and Cheez-Its are at about the same. They have no fiber, so you can’t even have the satisfaction of a decent bowel movement at the end of it all. Combos—those delicious cheesy pretzels—log in at about 3 grams of saturated fat and 140 calories per ounce. And depending on your variety of Sun Chips, you’re still getting at least 140 calories and 6 grams of fat. At least those have a little protein though.


If you’re looking for something salty and crunchy, go for either the pretzels or any whole grain chip. Whole grain Sun Chips, for example, still have 140 calories and plenty of fat and sodium, but have a good amount of fiber (3g), earning them at least some nutritional value. For the vending machine variety of pretzels, Synder’s sticks and minis are your best bet, with one serving (20 pieces!) at 110 calories and no fat at all. Pretzels are fairly dense in carbs and sodium, but there is a bit of protein in the handful—around 3 grams. Bonus: Pretzels taste vastly better than goddamn sour cream and onion chips.

Row 3: Even More Chips, Cookies, and (Hopefully) Trail Mix

There may be a lingering specialized chip option or two here, too. How are there so many chips?! Oh right, they’re cheaply made blocks of fat and salt that big companies can make a buttload off of from the vending machine crowd. Consider that even TGIFriday’s made a special chip just for junk food enthusiasts—their Potato Skins chips, by the way, are about as healthy as the Cheese Doodles.


Here we’ll find some cookies in the mix—you know, the snack-pack variety deceptively branded as Grandma’s cookies. (I think I can safely say that my grandma shits cookies better than these.) In any case, they’re unsparingly horrible for you: one of Grandma’s Chocolate Chip Fudge cookies has 2.5 grams of saturated fat (13% of your daily intake) and 12 grams of sugar. There’s two in a package.

That leaves us with the trail mix and the roasted nuts, by far the best of the light snacking options in this row, if not the whole damn machine. Nuts have protein, fiber, and fat, and they are satisfying and filling—basically everything you need in a healthy-ish snack. An ounce of Transition regular-grade trail mix contains 140 calories and a solid dose of protein. There’s lot of fat (8 grams), but it’s the good fat, and the dried fruit in the trail mix gives you a boost of fiber. Dry roasted mixed nuts are a go-to choice if you don’t want dried fruit.


Row 4: Granola and Energy Bars

Feeling like you need to just do a lot of work right now, crash in an hour, and visit the dentist in a month? Well, this row has Pop Tarts and Rice-Krispie Treats. A single Pop Tart is garbage for your body, and you get two in a pack, so that’s basically a small meal of garbage. Perhaps a viable option for diabetics whose blood sugar is running low.


But hold on, what’s that we see? Granola bars! They have granola in them, so they have to be a healthy snack, right? Well, sort of. It will depend on the brand. Quaker’s regularly available Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip granola bars have a slight amount of fiber (1 gram) and protein (2 grams), but they’re loaded with sugar (7 grams) and saturated fat (1 gram) all in a single bar, coming in at fairly modest 100 calories per. They’re a decent single-serving snack if you’re looking for something sweet and not totally devoid of nutrition, but they can spell disaster—they are addictive. You simply cannot have just one.

Some (though not many) vending machines have energy bars, such as Clif bars. Clif bars are a worthy tool for fueling up before a workout or a breakfast replacement, but they shouldn’t be used as a regular snack if you’re trying to maintain weight. Most Clif bars have 250 calories—well over our allowed calorie limit for snacking—with plenty of carbs, fiber, sugar, and protein. It’s basically a small meal jam-packed into a Kit-Kat. And they help you live a more adventurous life, or something. Pick these sorts of energy bar only if you’re planning on exercising and being active after work.


Row 5: Sugar! Chocolate!

This is usually the row with the most candy. Milky-Ways, Three Musketeers, M&Ms, Baby Ruths, Jelly beans, Starburst, Gummy Bears, Fruit Snacks, and maybe some Oreos (which is basically candy). Remember how great a snack pretzels can be? There’s the Flipz, which takes everything great about pretzels and smothers it in chocolate, making pretzels no nutritionally better than a candy bar (with the added sugar and saturated fat, Calorie Count gives Flipz a “D+” grade).


If you’re craving something sweet and absolutely must have something with the candy row, whatever you do, don’t go with the jelly beans, gummy bears, or Starburst. While you can sort of make an argument that there’s at least some protein in the chocolate stuff, there’s is nothing redeemable in the candies that are just processed blocks of sugar. Don’t be fooled by the “fruit snacks.” There’s no actual fruit in them. What they are are small chunks of sucrose (22 grams in a 1.75-ounce pack of Welch’s), about the same as 17 Haribo gummy bears (18 grams)—not a very good snack at all. There’s no real difference between the two, except for the net amount of sugar in each.

Your pick, begrudgingly: A half-decent snacking option in this row would be a Snickers or Baby Ruth candy bar. They have peanuts, or so I’m told. A Snickers bar has 250 calories, tons of saturated fat, and 27 grams of sugar. Those stats are terrible. But there’s also 4 grams of protein! Snicker’s satisfies.


If you can find a dark chocolate option, that’s a viable choice at face value: Dark chocolate contains a lot of antioxidants which are good for keeping free radicals and bay and your immune system healthy. However, I’m of the opinion that the boost in antioxidants isn’t worth the price of admission for most mass-produced dark chocolate: Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate bars has 8 grams of saturated fat each and obviously plenty of sugar; more of each, in fact, than a Snickers. The fancy artisanal dark chocolates are a whole lot better, but they don’t sell those in office vending machines.

Row 6: Gum and Mints

It’s gum. Does your breath smell bad? Get the gum. Or Altoids, whatever’s in there. Just don’t choose Juicy Fruit. It’s technically gum, but does nothing for your breath and the flavor dies in a few seconds. Fuck Juicy Fruit.


Ben Radding has written Esquire, Outside, FHM, and was previously an editor at Men’s Fitness. He tweets from @raddingbot.

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