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It’s 3 p.m., and my stomach is growling. It’s been a few hours since lunch, and dinner is still a few hours away. Time for an afternoon snack.
I always feel a little guilty when I snack outside of mealtimes. But I’m far from alone. According to one survey, nearly 3 in 4 Americans report snacking at least once a day, most frequently in the afternoon.
Snacking in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, we don’t always choose the healthiest options as the day goes on. The same survey found people’s snacking choices tend to get less healthy later in the day, with 40 percent of people who snack in the evening picking savory or salty snacks and 38 percent opting for candy, chocolate or other sweet treats.
But if we eat healthy most of the time, having an occasional indulgent snack should be fine, right?
Not so fast…
Unhealthy snacking can tank otherwise healthy eating habits
Researchers in the U.K. analyzed the snacking habits of 854 people from the ZOE PREDICT study.
Not surprisingly, results found that 95 percent of those in the study snacked. Their average daily intake was 2.28 snacks a day, and snacking contributed 24 percent of their daily energy intake.
But the quality of those snacks made a bigger difference than anyone probably expected to see…
People who frequently ate high-quality snacks like nuts and fresh fruit were more likely to have a healthy weight compared not only to those who snacked on unhealthy foods — but also to those who didn’t snack at all. Healthy snacks also resulted in better metabolic health and reduced hunger.
However, 26 percent of participants reported eating healthy main meals and poor-quality snacks like highly processed foods and sugary treats. These unhealthy snacks left people feeling hungry and were linked with…
- higher BMI;
- greater visceral fat mass;
- and higher post-meal triglycerides.
All these markers are associated with metabolic diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
The most popular snacks were cookies, fruit, nuts and seeds, cheese and butter, cakes and pies and granola or cereal bars. Cakes and pies contributed the most to calorie intake, followed by breakfast cereals, ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, donuts and pastries, candy, cookies and brownies and nuts and seeds.
Also, snacking after 9 p.m. was deemed to have the absolute worst effects. Cheating this late in the evening was connected with poorer blood markers compared with all other snacking times. Those who snacked at this time also tended to eat energy-dense foods high in fat and sugar.
“This study contributes to the existing literature that food quality is the driving factor in positive health outcomes from food,” says Dr. Kate Bermingham from King’s College London and senior scientist at ZOE. “Making sure we eat a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, protein and legumes is the best way to improve your health.”
What to snack on, and when
Bottom line: if you’re going to be a snacker, it’s best to reach for something healthy.
For instance, instead of a packet of potato chips, take a handful of crunchy almonds, which studies show can reduce weight, lower cholesterol and slash heart disease risk by 32 percent.
If you’re craving a late-night bowl of ice cream, swap it out for a small bowl of cottage cheese instead. I know it sounds weird, but cottage cheese before bedtime can increase your metabolic rate and improve muscle recovery.
A handful of berries can put you back in control of your cravings — and they are great atop cottage cheese.
Another good way to keep your snacking options healthy is to snack earlier in the day when you’re more likely to make good choices. According to the survey I mentioned earlier, 52 percent of respondents reported having at least one snack in the morning, with a majority (43 percent) of those morning snackers choosing to eat fruit instead of pastries or other less-healthy options.
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2. 2022 Food and Health Survey Spotlight: Snacking — Food Insight