Is Snacking Good or Bad for Your Health?

Snacking is a controversial topic, with many differing opinions on whether it is healthy or unhealthy. This article summarizes key points from a discussion between two nutrition experts, Dr. Sarah Berry and Dr. Tim Spector, where they analyze the latest scientific research on snacking and offer advice.

Snacking Habits in Western Society

  • Snacking frequency has increased dramatically over the past 50 years in the UK and US. Today, about 85% of people snack between meals.
  • Snacking accounts for 25% of total daily calorie intake on average. For a person eating 2000 calories per day, 500 calories comes from snacks.
  • However, 75% of snack calories come from ultra-processed “junk” snacks like chips, chocolate, cakes and pastries. This pulls down the overall quality of people’s diets.
  • Snacking is much less common in countries like France, Spain and Italy. Their snacking frequency is only about 10-15% of total calories.

Potential Downsides of Frequent Snacking

There are several ways that frequent snacking could negatively impact health:

  • Eating Window: Snacking until late evening reduces the overnight “fasting” window where the body can rest and repair itself. Ideally this window should be 12+ hours.
  • Blood Sugar: Frequent blood sugar spikes from high-carb snacks can worsen glucose control and increase inflammation.
  • Overeating: Snacks don’t satisfy hunger as well as meals. This causes overeating at subsequent meals to compensate.
  • Ultra-processed snacks: Chemical additives in junk snacks impair gut health over the long-term.

Potential Benefits of Healthy Snacking

However, some research suggests snacking can be healthy if done right:

  • Snacking on healthy foods like nuts, fruits and vegetables appears not to affect weight or cardiometabolic health compared to 3 meals per day.
  • Healthy snacks may balance blood sugar and prevent overeating at meals better than no snacks.
  • Our bodies may be “primed” for snacking if it’s part of our habitual routine. Skipping snacks unexpectedly could backfire if hangryness causes poor food choices.

How Different Snacks Affect Health

Not all snacks are created equal in terms of their healthiness. Here is a more in-depth look at some common snack options:

Fruit: Fruit can be a nutrient-dense snack option when chosen wisely. Fruits like apples, pears, peaches and berries provide fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. However, some fruits like bananas, mangoes, grapes and cherries are relatively high in natural sugars. If your body struggles to regulate blood sugar, these sweeter fruits can cause more of a spike. In that case, pairing them with protein or healthy fat can help blunt the spike. Dried fruits like raisins are concentrated sources of sugar and should be eaten in moderation.

Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are among the most recommended snacks from a health perspective. They provide satisfying protein and fiber that sustains energy levels. The combination of protein, fiber and unsaturated fats means they do not cause blood sugar spikes. Studies show regular nut consumption aids weight loss and reduces risk factors for heart disease by improving cholesterol profiles. The wide variety of nuts and seeds available means you can mix up flavors and textures to prevent boredom. Avoid heavily salted or sugared nuts, and stick to reasonable portions as the calories add up quickly.

Chips/crisps: The healthiness of chips and crisps can range tremendously depending on how they are made. Mass-market brands like Lay’s and Pringles are heavily processed with artificial flavors, vegetable oils and other additives that make them nutritionally poor snacks. Higher quality chips made only with real potatoes, olive oil and salt offer more nutrition and less junk. But all chips should be seen as an occasional treat food rather than everyday snack due to low protein, vitamins and minerals. Moderating portions is important.

Chocolate: Chocolate is another snack where the quality spectrum is wide. Sugary milk chocolate provides little nutrition and a quick blood sugar spike. But higher cacao content dark chocolate (70% or above) delivers antioxidants, fiber and satisfaction from sweetness, without the same degree of blood sugar impact. The fat in chocolate also blunts the glycemic response. As with all sweets, portion control is key, but a small amount of dark chocolate can be part of a healthy diet for those looking to fulfill a sweet craving without overloading on sugar.

This overview shows that the health value of any snack depends hugely on factors like ingredients, portion size and frequency. Being an aware consumer and choosing whole, minimally processed options is the key to snacking successfully.

Tips to Snack Smarter

If you choose to incorporate snacks into your diet, following these simple tips can help you snack in a healthier way:

  • Listen to your body – Eat snacks only when you are truly hungry, rather than out of habit or boredom. Be attuned to your body’s signals of real hunger vs. cravings. Having an apple or some nuts when hungry between meals is smart. Snacking when you’re not hungry just because the food is there is not.
  • Prioritize snack quality – Emphasize whole, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Read labels and avoid anything with a long ingredient list, additives you don’t recognize or added sugars.
  • Snack earlier in the day – Late night snacking messes with your circadian rhythms and is linked to impaired glucose regulation and weight gain.Aim to finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  • Balance snacks with meals – If snacking between meals, opt for lighter main meals with plenty of fiber, protein and healthy fats to sustain your energy over time. Avoid large portions or heavy, rich foods.
  • Control your environment – Don’t keep junk food temptingly available at home or work. Shop for snacks when feeling satiated rather than hungry.
  • Beware portions – Even healthy snacks can add up calories quickly. Measure portions, especially of nuts, hummus, cheese. Pre-portion snacks into bags or containers.
  • Combine snacks – Pair foods like nuts or apple slices with protein (yogurt, cheese) for more satiety.
  • Hydrate – Don’t mistake thirst for hunger. Opt for water as your first option.

With a bit of mindfulness and planning, snacks can be a part of a healthy diet without derailing your goals. But they key is being selective and intentional with when, why and what you snack on.

Snacking habits

  • Snacking habits should align with your health goals and body’s needs. Avoid rigid dogma either for or against snacking.
  • Focus more on improving snack quality, timing and portions than counting snacks or calories.
  • A mainly whole food diet with minimal ultra-processed snacks remains ideal for most people.

In moderation and with smart choices, snacking can be part of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle. But unhealthy snacking habits are abundantly common and should be addressed through improved nutrition education and policies targeting processed food marketing and accessibility.

Workout and Fitness News

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.