A healthful diet can help to prevent diseases and prolong life, but snacking on unhealthful foods can negate your diet efforts even if your regular meals are healthful. Highly-processed, sugar-added snacks can make you hungrier so you eat more food and have higher blood levels of triglycerides that are associated with increased risk for obesity, heart attacks and strokes.
The ZOE PREDICT study from London followed the snacking habits of 854 people (Eur J Nutr, Sept 15, 2023), and found that:
• 50 percent of those who ate primarily healthful meals did not eat healthful snacks
• 24 percent of their daily calories came from snacks
• 47 percent of the study group snacked twice a day, and 29 percent snacked more than twice a day.
The most common snacks were cookies, fruits, nuts, seeds, cheese, cakes, pies, granola, and cereal/cereal bars. In this study group, 14 percent ate cakes and pies, 12 percent ate ice cream/frozen dairy desserts, 12 percent ate pastries and donuts, 11 percent ate candy, 11 percent ate brownies and cookies, and 13 percent ate breakfast cereals or cereal bars.
Members of the study group who ate healthful snacks such as fresh fruits and nuts and did not snack after 9:00PM were less likely to be overweight or have high blood triglycerides than those who ate unhealthful snacks or who snacked at night.
Restrict Snacking at Night
The best times to snack are immediately before or after you move about, and the worst time is just before you go to bed. Resting muscles draw almost no sugar from the bloodstream, but contracting muscles help to prevent a high rise in blood sugar after you eat by drawing large amounts of sugar from the bloodstream without even needing insulin to do so. Eating at night is associated with a significantly increased risk for a higher rise in blood sugar and for diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Those who snacked at night tended to select energy-dense foods that were high in fats, sugar and refined carbohydrates that often cause a high rise in blood sugar, such as cookies, cakes, ice cream, pastries and bread.
Protect Against High Triglycerides
After you eat, blood sugar rises. To protect yourself from having your blood sugar rise too high and cause cell damage, the sugar is quickly shuttled into the places your body can store sugar: your liver and muscles. However, your liver and muscles can store only a limited amount of sugar. Your body then tries to convert the extra sugar to fatty triglycerides, so your blood triglycerides rise after you eat. A high rise in triglycerides increases risk for clotting. Your body shuttles extra fatty triglycerides into your liver, which increases risk for a fatty liver that can prevent you from responding to insulin. That is why having a blood level of triglyceride greater than 150 mg/dL puts you at increased risk for diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
This study showed that snacking is not harmful as long as the snacks are healthful, and you don’t snack and then go to bed. The people who snacked on healthful foods such as nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables and avoided foods loaded with sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates did not have markers of cell damage any higher than people who did not snack.
• Healthful snacks: fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen fruit, no-added sugar yogurt, unsalted nuts and seeds, nut butters, hummus and bean dips, plain popcorn
• Limit or avoid: Sugar-added foods, fried foods, heavily-salted foods, baked goods and most foods that come in packages as they are most often ultra-processed and have added sugar and salt.