The Snack Attack That’s Hurting Your Healthy Meals

Research reveals that many people cancel out the health benefits of their main meals by eating unhealthy snacks. While snacks aren’t unhealthy per se, the type of snack and timing are crucial.

A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition shows that many people counteract the benefits of healthy meals with unhealthy snacks. The type of snack and the timing chosen, especially after 9 p.m., can have a negative impact on health.

A quarter of people cancel out the benefits of healthy meals in favor of unhealthy snacks, increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease.

The results, published on September 15 in the European Journal of Nutrition by researchers from King’s College London School of Life Course & Population Sciences and ZOE, details the snacking habits of 854 people from the ZOE PREDICT study.

The researchers found that half of the participants did not match the healthfulness of their meals to the healthiness of their snacks and vice versa. This difference has a negative effect on health measures, such as blood sugar and fat levels, and addressing this problem could be a simple dietary strategy to improve health.

Dr Sarah Berry from King’s College London and chief scientist at ZOE said: “Knowing that 95% of us snack and almost a quarter of our calories come from snacks, it’s best to replace unhealthy snacks such as biscuits, crisps and cakes healthy snacks like fruit and nuts are a very easy way to improve your health.

Snacking trends and impacts in the UK

Analysis showed that the UK is a nation of snackers, with 24% of our daily energy intake coming from snacks such as cereal bars, pastries and fruit. The average daily snack consumption among people who snack – 95% of the cohort – was 2.28 snacks per day, with 47% of people eating two snacks per day and 29% of people eating more than two.

Contrary to popular belief, analysis has shown that snacking is not bad for your health – as long as it is healthy. People who frequently ate high-quality snacks like nuts and fresh fruit were more likely to be at a healthy weight than those who didn’t snack at all or those who snacked on unhealthy foods. The analysis also showed that good quality snacks can also lead to better metabolic health and reduced hunger.

However, a quarter (26%) of participants reported eating healthy main meals and poor quality snacks. Low-quality snacks, such as highly processed foods and sugary treats, were associated with poorer health markers and left people hungry. Unhealthy snacking was associated with higher BMI, higher visceral fat mass, and higher postprandial (period after a meal) concentrations of triglycerides, all of which are associated with metabolic diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Popular snacks and their health implications

The most consumed snacks were cookies, fruit, nuts and seeds, cheese and butter, cakes and pies, and granola or cereal bars. The largest contributions to calorie intake were cakes and pies (14%), breakfast cereals (13%), ice cream and frozen dairy desserts (12%), donuts and pastries (12%) , candies (11%), cookies and brownies. (11%), nuts and seeds (11%).

The timing of snacking may also be crucial to your health, as one analysis showed that snacking after 9 p.m. was associated with lower blood markers than all other snacking times. At that time, snackers tended to eat energy-dense foods high in fat and sugar.

Dr Kate Bermingham from King’s College London and Principal Scientist at ZOE said: “This study contributes to the existing literature that food quality is the key determinant of positive diet-related health outcomes. Ensuring you eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, proteins and legumes is the best way to improve your health.

Reference: “Snack quality and timing are associated with cardiometabolic blood markers: the ZOE PREDICT study” by Kate M. Bermingham, Anna May, Francesco Asnicar, Joan Capdevila, Emily R. Leeming, Paul W. Franks, Ana M. Valdes, Jonathan Wolf, George Hadjigeorgiou, Linda M. Delahanty, Nicola Segata, Tim D. Spector and Sarah E. Berry, September 15, 2023, European Journal of Nutrition.
DOI: 10.1007/s00394-023-03241-6

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