We’re all aware of the diet-busting effects of chronic snacking—that mindless munching on what is usually less-than-healthy food that occurs as often in response to boredom as to genuine hunger. With the current buzz around the health benefits of intermittent calorie restriction, frequent eating is discouraged. Nevertheless, smart snacking can help stabilize blood sugar and could help prevent overeating at regular mealtimes.
To learn more about controlling snacking and feeling full, listen to the Live Foreverish podcast on www.LiveForeverish.com, in which Life Extension’s own Michael A. Smith, MD, discusses the latest information with nutrition expert Crystal Gossard, DCN, CNS, LDN.
Why do people snack?
In many people, “snack attacks” arise from a sensation of hunger caused by a decrease in blood glucose. But for others, there’s more at play. Boredom, force of habit, sugar addiction, poor impulse control, family and cultural norms, eating-associated stimulation of dopamine (a hormone associated with reward) and more can contribute to excessive snacking.1,2
The snack habit is often associated with sedentary activities such as watching TV. In fact, a systematic review found that among six studies that reported overall food habits in children aged 1-18 years, all identified an association between TV viewing and the intake of sweets, fried foods, pizza and snacks.3 The combination of junk food consumed in the absence of hunger and sedentary leisure time is detrimental to long-term health.
Why is snacking bad for you?
Negative effects of snacking
While many of us strive to prepare healthy meals for ourselves and our families, we negate some of the benefits by unhealthy eating between meals. Not surprisingly, snack time is associated with “snack foods,” which can be heavily salted, sugar-laden and high in fat. Chips, desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages remain the most popular snacks in several countries.1 This preference for unhealthy food is a large part of the detrimental effects of snacking. Not only are so-called “snack foods” unhealthy, but their calorie content can sometimes be greater than that of meals. It has been estimated that snacking contributes to nearly a quarter of daily calorie intake in the U.S. and Canada.1 When snacking adds potentially hundreds of nonnutritive, “empty” calories each day, maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging, putting people at risk of other health problems.
A study of 80 elementary school children found that overweight or obese girls had a significantly greater intake of calories and carbohydrates in their “afternoon snacks” and snacks prepared and eaten at home compared with girls who were of a normal weight, and that overweight and obese boys consumed significantly more unhealthy saturated fat in snacks prepared and eaten at home in comparison with normal weight boys. This unhealthy pattern of eating could set the stage for major health problems later in life, including metabolic syndrome and diabetes.4
Is it healthy to snack throughout the day?
Health benefits of Snacking
The benefits of snacking depend upon the type and quantity of food consumed. A recent review noted, “The consumption of healthful snacks likely affects satiety and promotes appetite control.”5
Healthful snacking can help manage blood glucose by preventing a noticeable drop in glucose between meals. This can help support energy levels, mood and cognition, and prevent overeating later.
It goes without saying that healthy snacks won’t make up for unhealthy meals. Both should be consumed with nutrition in mind to keep blood glucose on an even keel throughout the day.
Healthy Snack Ideas: What can you do to ensure your snacks are nutritious?
Healthy, satisfying snacks usually contain protein and a prudent amount of complex carbohydrates or healthy fats, while avoiding simple sugars, salt, trans fatty acids or significant amounts of saturated fat. Fiber, while nonnutritive, is important in maintaining a sense of fullness after a meal. While fruit, vegetables and grains have naturally occurring fiber, supplemental fiber can be mixed into shakes, smoothies and baked goods.
Satisfying snacks can be as simple as a handful of nuts or such combinations as celery with nut butter or carrot sticks and hummus.6 Healthy shakes and bars that aren’t associated with the drop in blood glucose that can occur a few hours after eating sugary snacks are a quick and easy option for people with busy lifestyles. Some of these healthy snack options have added ingredients that further boost the ability to manage appetite.
Foods that have a low glycemic index, which is a measure of their effect on blood glucose, are a good snack choice. Higher glycemic indexes are associated with a greater rise in glucose following the food’s consumption. This can result in a “crash” several hours later, which is often rescued by yet another high glycemic index food or overeating at mealtime.7
Finally, if you do end up consuming a large quantity of food during “snack” time, stop fooling yourself. Your afternoon snack just became an early meal. Adjust your subsequent food intake accordingly.
Related Article: Snacking 101: What Should We Snack on, and When?
If you’re away from home a lot, toss a bag of almonds or a nutritious bar into your briefcase or handbag to prevent food desert disasters (like an emergency pit stop at a fast food joint).
Snacking can be healthy when we consume the right amount of the right foods at the right time. Rather than being a diet-buster, smart snacking can help attain and maintain long-term health goals.
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- Hess JM et al. Adv Nutr. 2016 May 16;7(3):466-75.
- Thanarajah SE et al. Cell Metab. 2019 Mar 5;29(3):695-706.e4.
- Avery A et al. Matern Child Nutr. 2017 Oct;13(4).
- Ibarra López M et al. Arch Latinoam Nutr. 2012 Dec;62(4):339-46.
- Njike VY et al. Adv Nutr. 2016 Sep 15;7(5):866-78.
- Godwin N et al. J Med Food. 2019 Mar 21.
- Papakonstantinou E et al. Nutrition. 2017 Oct;42:12-19.