- Researchers assessed how snack quality, timing, and quantity affect cardiometabolic health.
- They found that higher quality snacks—but not necessarily quantity or timing—were most strongly linked to better cardiometabolic health.
- The findings suggest that high quality snacking may be a part of a healthy diet.
Over 90% of U.S. adults eat one or more snacks per day, with most eating between 1.2 and 3 snacks daily. Studies also show that snacking has been increasing in both frequency and quantity over the last few decades.
Although snacks contribute to around 20% of energy intake in the American diet, few studies have investigated the health effects of snack quantity, quality, and timing. Understanding more about how snacking habits affect health could inform dietary practices.
Recently, researchers explored the relationship between snacking habits and cardiometabolic health.
They found that the quality of snacks—but not necessarily timing or frequency—was most associated with health outcomes. Higher-quality snacks were linked to better cardiometabolic health.
“The data emphasize that food quality is of the utmost importance when it comes to health. Diet is the cornerstone to health, and there are many ways to consume the nutrients that we need. Consumption of high quality, nutritious ‘mini meals’ may be a valuable adjunct to a well-balanced diet.”
— Dr. Elizabeth R. Raskin, surgical director of the Margolis Family IBD Program, Hoag Hospital, who was not involved in the study, speaking to Medical News Today.
The study was presented at NUTRITION 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition held on July 22–25 in Boston.
Comparing snacking time and quality
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 1,001 UK-based participants ages an average of 46 years. Around 73% were female, and they had an average BMI of 25.6— classed as slightly overweight.
Data included self-reported snacking quantity, quality, and timing, as well as cardiometabolic markers, including blood lipids and glucose, and insulin levels.
Higher-quality snacks were defined as foods that contain significant amounts of nutrients relative to calories, and the participants self-monitored over 2–4 days.
Around 95% of the participants ate at least one snack daily and an average of 2.28 snacks per day. Snacking made up around 22% of daily calorie intake.
Ultimately, the researchers found that higher-quality snacking was linked to better blood lipid and insulin responses. They further found that consuming most snacking calories after 9 p.m. was linked to worse blood glucose and lipid levels.
They noted, however, that there was no link between snacking frequency, calories consumed, or food quantity with any of the measures of cardiometabolic health.
The findings remained after controlling for factors including age, sex, BMI, education, physical activity levels, and main meal quantity.
Limitations of the study
Dr. Raskin noted that limitations include reliance on self-reports for snack consumption and composition, which can be prone to forgetfulness.
She added that the metabolic demands of individuals in the study were unclear and that there was insufficient information on the composition and consumption of participants’ regular meals.
MNT also spoke with Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., a senior clinical dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, who was also not involved in the study. She noted that 2–4 days is a short time window for nutritional assessment and to see changes and outcomes.
Dr. Jaclyn Albin, associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, who was also not involved in the study, further noted that the participants were mostly female, in their mid-40s, and slightly overweight according to BMI.
How these findings may apply to other demographics—especially those who have already been diagnosed with metabolic conditions—thus remains unknown.
Healthy snacking ideas
MNT asked Dani Felber, an integrative brain health dietitian and owner of Focused Nutrition and Wellness, who was not involved in the study, what a healthy snack may look like.
She said that well-balanced healthy snacks may include:
- carrots with hummus
- peppers with guacamole
- sliced apples with nut butter
- Greek yogurt with berries
- a handful of lightly salted nuts or seeds
“Snacks can be enjoyed anytime you’re feeling hungry between meals, as long as you are choosing nutrient-dense snacks that are well-balanced with protein, fat, or fiber. These nutrients slow digestion and delay glucose absorption, ensuring satiety without the large blood sugar spike that can lead to lethargy and sugar cravings—a particular concern for those who are prone to afternoon energy slumps and evening cravings,” she explained.
Felber added that one of the reasons why late-evening snacking may lead to less favorable health markers is that it is usually linked to poorer food choices, such as high fat snacks or sugary treats.
“However, if you’re paying attention to the quality of your evening snacks and pairing any carbohydrate-rich foods with healthy sources of protein, fat, or fiber, this may help reduce the adverse effects of late-evening snacking,” she said.
Dr. Albin added that listening to our bodies and trying only to snack when we’re actually hungry could also make snacking more healthy.
“Many people snack if bored or stressed, and it can become a habit that prevents making the best choices. The ideal time to snack varies for everyone based on appetite, exercise, meal timing, and general health, but late-night snacking is typically best avoided.”
— Dr. Jaclyn Albin
Snacking should be personal
Dr. Raskin noted that it is important to consume and time snacks according to one’s individual nutritional needs.
“For example, a patient who needs to gain weight might need to focus on higher-calorie snacks more frequently during the day. Similarly, a patient with diabetes may need to think about lower glycemic options that help maintain stable insulin levels, while still providing an energy boost,” she said.
“Late-night snacking is typically discouraged if you have already consumed your goal calories for the day. Someone with high metabolic needs, like a high-performance athlete, may benefit from a nutritious snack before bedtime,” she concluded.
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