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If you’re eating healthier meals these days, congratulations — but what do you snack on? By choosing ultraprocessed and sugary snacks, 1 in 4 of us may be undoing all the benefits of healthy eating, according to a new study.
“Considering 95% of us snack, and that nearly a quarter of our calories come from snacks, swapping unhealthy snacks such as cookies, crisps and cakes to healthy snacks like fruit and nuts is a really simple way to improve your health,” said senior author Sarah Berry, a researcher at King’s College London, in a statement. (For you Americans, crisps are chips.)
More than 90% of adults in the United States report eating one or more snacks on any given day. In the United Kingdom, where the study was done, some 47% of participants ate two snacks a day and 29% of people snacked even more often.
Over 25% of the study participants reported eating healthy main meals and snacking on highly processed food and sugary treats that can increase hunger, the study found.
“We don’t go out into the weather and simply ‘hope’ it will be good; we protect ourselves against it, in all the right ways. A coat when it’s cold; an umbrella when it rains,” said Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, in an email. He was not involved in the study.
“We should think of the food environment in just the same way, and not go out into a ‘climate’ of junk food and hope to eat well,” said Katz, the president and founder of the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a global coalition of experts dedicated to evidence-based lifestyle medicine. He has published research on how to use food as preventive medicine.
Snack choice and timing
The study, published Thursday in the European Journal of Nutrition, analyzed the snacking habits of 854 people participating in the Zoe Predict study, a collaboration between Tufts University and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston and nutrition researchers in the United Kingdom, Spain and Sweden.
Eating poor choices for snacks was “linked with higher BMI (body mass index), higher visceral fat mass and higher postprandial — the period after eating a meal — triglycerides concentrations, all of which are associated with metabolic disease such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and obesity,” according to a study statement.
When the snacks were eaten was also important. Snacking after 9 p.m. was associated with eating calorie-dense foods high in fat and sugar, the study found. People who snacked late had worse blood markers that might lead to chronic disease than those who snacked earlier in the day.
Not all snacking is unhealthy, the study said. Participants who frequently ate nuts, fresh fruit and other high-quality snacks were more likely to have a healthy weight compared with non-snackers or those who chose unhealthy foods.
“My practice for decades has been to travel with convenient, nutritious foods I like — so if I get hungry on the go, or at the office, it is not someone I don’t know who chooses my snack — it is me,” Katz said.
“Get an insulated snack pack; have some convenient, nutritious foods you like handy at home — nuts, fresh fruit, dried fruit, hummus and the like — and take them with you so that eating well on the go is always under your control, and at your fingertips,” he added.