The study looked at a group of frequent snackers in the U.K., mostly women, who kept otherwise healthy diets. It found that about a quarter of participants’ snacking was hurting their health due to eating too much or eating low quality snacks, but that snacking alone doesn’t always hurt.
“Contrary to public perception, we find that the act of snacking, in terms of both frequency and quantity of energy from snacks, was not associated with unfavourable cardiometabolic blood or anthropometric markers,” the researchers wrote. “Instead, we observed that snack quality matters and is associated with favourable lipemic and insulinemic responses, as well as decreased hunger.”
Researchers defined “high quality” snacks as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and unprocessed foods. “Low quality” snacks included sweets and heavily processed foods.
According to the study, those who consumed mostly high quality snacks, no matter the quantity, were healthier than those who mostly consumed low quality snacks.
Low quality snacks were “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,” the study found.
Researchers said that snacking accounted for about a quarter of participants’ caloric intake, and that most people ate snacks once or twice a day.
Snack timing can also be significantly influential on health, researchers said. The healthiest snacking habit is early in the day, the study states. People who snacked in the evening were more likely to eat low quality foods and have less time for their bodies to process nutrients, leading to worse health outcomes.
As for dietary advice, the study states that eating high-quality foods early in the day can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
“Snacking behaviour may be a key diet target to ameliorate risk factors for diet-related diseases and snacking on high-quality foods earlier in the day can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” the study concludes. “However, when people have sufficient diet information, food knowledge and healthy eating intentions, the current food environment makes it difficult for them to change their snacking behaviour.”