LONDON — All calories count, even midnight trips to the fridge and covert excursions to the vending machine. That’s the sobering reminder many may want to take away from a recent study conducted in the United Kingdom. Researchers found an astounding 25 percent of people essentially nullify their healthy diets by indulging in snacks and junk food. Consequently, a team at King’s College London cautions that countless people are unknowingly increasing their risk of strokes and cardiovascular disease.
This project encompassed the snacking habits of 854 people from the ZOE PREDICT study, allowing study authors to see that roughly half of all participants did not match the healthiness of their meals to their snacks, and vice versa. These caloric discrepancies can inflict a number of negative consequences on health, including elevated blood sugar and fat levels. Researchers theorize addressing such snacking imbalances represents a simple way for many to improve their diet, and subsequently, their health.
“Considering 95% of us snack, and that nearly a quarter of our calories come from snacks, swapping unhealthy snacks such as cookies, crisps and cakes to healthy snacks like fruit and nuts is a really simple way to improve your health,” says Dr. Sarah Berry from King’s College London and chief scientist at ZOE, in a university release.
The study details how the United Kingdom, much like the United States, is very much a nation of snackers. In all, 24 percent of U.K. residents’ daily energy intake comes from snacks like cereal bars, pastries, and fruit. On average, people deemed “snackers” by researchers (95% of the cohort) ate 2.28 snacks a day; 47 percent ate just two snacks daily while 29 percent usually consumed more than two.
Interestingly, this work actually shows that snacking is not unhealthy. That is, as long as the snacks being eaten are healthy and nutritious. Those who ate healthy snacks like nuts and fruits on a regular basis were much more likely to register at a healthy weight in comparison to others who either didn’t snack at all or who habitually snacked on junk foods. Moreover, an analysis revealed high-quality snacks can also help promote improved overall metabolic health and decreased hunger.
Notably, just over a quarter (26%) of respondents self-reported eating healthy main meals yet consuming poor-quality snacks throughout their days. These junk food snacks, like highly processed foods and sugary treats, were linked to both poorer health markers and often left people feeling hungry afterward. Unhealthy snacks were also associated with higher BMI, higher visceral fat mass, and higher postprandial (post-meal) triglyceride concentrations. All of those have been linked to a host of metabolic diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
The most popular reported snacks among participants included cookies, nuts and seeds, cheese and butter, fruit, cakes and pies, and granola/cereal bars. In terms of calories, snacks accounting for the greatest caloric contributions were as follows: cakes and pies (14%), breakfast cereals (13%), ice cream and frozen dairy desserts (12%), donuts and pastries (12%), candy (11%), cookies and brownies (11%), and nuts and seeds (11%).
It’s worth noting that the timing of a snack can also play a big role in its health impact. Research suggests snacking after 9 p.m. is associated with poorer blood markers compared to earlier in the day. Nighttime snackers also tend to indulge in energy-dense foods that are higher in fats and sugar.
“This study contributes to the existing literature that food quality is the driving factor in positive health outcomes from food. Making sure we eat a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, protein and legumes is the best way to improve your health,” concludes Dr. Kate Bermingham from King’s College London and senior scientist at ZOE.
The study is published in the European Journal of Nutrition.