Snack smart: The scientifically-proven guide to healthy indulgences

Snacking is super common, but here’s the thing: how should we do it right?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, over 90 percent of Americans snack daily [1]. Despite this, snacking and being healthy is still confusing.

Snacks: Pros and cons

There have been attempts to determine whether snacking impacts nutrition and health outcomes, but without a clear answer [2]. This may be due to the need for a standard scientific definition of a snack.

Studies find that public health organizations’ snacking recommendations generally advise limiting snacks with little nutrition but high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium. They discovered that snacks provide at least 10% of daily calories, with about two snacks eaten daily [2,3].

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, nutrient-dense snacks include raw vegetables, fresh fruit, nuts and plain yogurt [4]. But what does the science say?

Science and snacks

Snacking accounts for 20-25 percent of energy intake, yet little research has been published on it, according to Kate Bermingham, a nutrition researcher at King’s College London, who presented her findings at NUTRITION 2023, the annual flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held in Boston. Bermingham and her team analyzed the snacking behavior of 1,001 participants in the ZOE PREDICT project, coordinated by the personalized nutrition app ZOE [5].

This data was used to examine the relationship between snacking quantity, quality and timing to blood fats and insulin, which are indicators of heart health and metabolism.

Study results

There were 1,001 participants, 95 percent of whom had at least one snack daily. The average daily snack consumed 22 percent of calories each day. Four snacking patterns greatly influenced how people’s bodies responded to snacking.

Morning snackers consumed more than half of their daily snacks before noon. The second group was the afternoon snackers, who mainly ate between 12 and 6 in the afternoon.

There were also evening snackers, who ate most of their snacks after 6 pm. Seventeen percent of the participants did not have a distinct snacking peak and were classified as “grazers.”

Evening snackers who tended to snack after 9 pm, had more unfavorable blood glucose and fat markers than daytime snackers. There could be several reasons for this, including that we tend to eat fewer healthy snacks late at night, as well as that we are less likely to be able to fast overnight if we eat late at night.

A 12-hour gap between dinner and breakfast forces our bodies to break down fat reserves and may improve gut health. Our bodies have a more challenging time doing metabolic work if we eat late at night.

The takeaway

Snacking quality was also important, according to the results. Healthy blood glucose and fat levels were found in participants who ate healthy snacks, such as fruits, veggies and nuts. However, snacking quantity did not seem to be significant.

Did you identify your snacking style in any of the four mentioned above?

[1] https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400530/pdf/dbrief/4_adult_snacking_0708.pdf
[2] https://academic.oup.com/advances/article-abstract/9/2/86/4969255
[3] https://advances.nutrition.org/
[4] https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
[5] https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/characterisation-of-fasting-and-postprandial-nmr-metabolites-insi

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