By Jennifer Sweenie
The average American makes 200 decisions about food every day, and often unknowingly. A large portion of those decisions typically consist of two to three snack choices. A recent peer-reviewed study intended to explore snack consumption in adults according to their Type 2 diabetes status also uncovered the poor state of snacking among adult Americans in general.
On average, adult Americans consume 400–500 calories a day from snacks alone. Unfortunately, most people aren’t reaching for nutrient-dense, whole-food options. Convenience foods and grab-and-go treats containing large amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates tend to make up the most popular between-meal choices. According to the study, only 5 percent of the calories taken in from snacks came from fruits and vegetables, most snacks were low in fiber and high in sugar, and more than 80 percent of the grains consumed were from refined sources.
Snacking is a valuable tool to add more nutrients to one’s diet and keep hunger and energy levels balanced throughout the day. However, there are wrong and right ways to snack, and it ultimately comes down to the “what” more than the “when” or “how much.”
The Dangers of Not Snacking Smartly
Snacking is associated with a higher risk of obesity and developing metabolic syndrome. A cohort study published online by Oxford University Press found that those who snacked between meals had a 44 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. That risk increased to 68 percent if the snacks were unhealthy, yet there was no associated risk when the snacks were deemed healthy.
Ultimately, the study concluded the association between snacking and the higher risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome is attributed to a chronic overall increase in calorie consumption throughout the day, and mainly from foods that are notably higher in calories and lacking in nutrients.
A cross-sectional study published Jan. 4, determined that a high intake of ultra-processed foods, a popular source of convenient snacking options, is also tied to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. Ultra-processed foods are high in sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars, and are often void of micronutrients and fiber. The study saw a significant decrease in HDL cholesterol levels (the “good” cholesterol), an increase in blood pressure, higher fasting blood sugar levels, and triglycerides in participants—all biomarkers for metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that raise a person’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and is a driving force behind many chronic health conditions. A study published in 2019 found that 88 percent of adult Americans exhibit at least one of the conditions of metabolic syndrome. Given that the study used data based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2009–2016, that percentage may have increased in the present day. Supplementing daily caloric intake with snacks in the form of ultra-processed foods is a recipe for weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and the associated health conditions.
Pros and Cons of Snacking
Despite the dangers of snacking on unhealthy foods, snacking in and of itself is not without benefits. It may come as no surprise that eating more often throughout the day can increase satiety and reduce cravings. Research suggests eating more frequently helps control appetite and promote fullness. However, there is also evidence that eating more frequently does not have an effect on hunger levels and may even potentially increase the desire to eat. Here, the evidence is mixed, and the jury remains out. The effect snacking may have on your hunger levels is ultimately based on personal observation.
According to a study conducted in Poland, one benefit to snacking is that eating four times a day, as opposed to three or fewer times, may help lower triglyceride levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels.
There are also some potential negatives to snacking. Adding snacks and eating more consistently throughout the day may be counterintuitive, depending on your objectives. If weight management is a goal of snacking, a review published in 2022 found that consuming the bulk of calories earlier in the day resulted in greater weight loss than eating more calories later in the day and evening. The review also found improvements in insulin sensitivity, fasting blood sugar, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels—something to consider if you are monitoring those specific biomarkers.
In addition, increasing the time between meals and a lower overall calorie intake allows for autophagy, the process by which the body disposes of damaged cells and generates new ones. By adding snacks and calories to your daily eating pattern, you are potentially cutting into the time your body has for this important removal and regenerative process.
Ultimately, whether or not to add snacks to your day is a personal decision. And if you opt to do so, it comes down to the type of food you choose to eat.
How to Snack Smarter
To keep hunger at bay between meals, snacks higher in protein are the best option. Protein-rich snacks have been shown to aid in satiety and overall daily food intake in women. One study compared hunger levels in healthy women after an afternoon snack of yogurt, crackers, or chocolate. Those who consumed the high-protein yogurt requested dinner at a later time than the women who had the crackers and chocolate. They also consumed fewer calories at dinner. There were similar findings from a study done on men who consumed a high-protein snack in the afternoon. They delayed dinner by almost twice as long as the participants who consumed a high-fat or high-carbohydrate snack instead.
Snacks high in fiber also promote satiety. Another study compared hunger and the desire to eat in participants who ate prunes versus a piece of bread with equal calories and weight, and found that those who ate the prunes had lower motivation to eat between meals. Given the equal macronutrients of the two snacks, the researchers concluded that the higher fiber content of the prunes may be the cause.
When it comes to the other macronutrients, studies have found that the type of fat in snacks may not have an effect on satiety, though research is limited, and whole grains may fare better in keeping hunger at bay than other kinds of carbohydrates.
Snacking smartly is all about utilizing the right kinds of food to keep hunger at bay while increasing daily nutrient intake. The best options are whole foods that are high in protein and fiber and contain healthy fats and complex carbohydrates as opposed to refined grains and added sugars.
On-the-go snack ideas that are a better choice over ultra-processed convenience foods and are around 200 calories include:
- A sliced cucumber with a quarter cup of hummus.
- Two hardboiled eggs with a cup of grape tomatoes.
- Six ounces of unsweetened plain yogurt with half a cup of berries.
- A sliced apple with unsweetened almond butter.
- Carrot sticks and four ounces of guacamole.