Daytime snacking: A healthy option for patients, when done right

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published July 31, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that how often people snack during the day probably won’t impact their health–but the quality of their snacks might

  • Researchers also recommend against late-night snacking.

A new analysis on snacking found that what people snack on is more relevant to their well-being than how often they snack. The researchers say their findings add new insight into the nutritional impact of snacking, which is understudied in the field.[] 

Further, the analysis “highlights snacking as an independent modifiable dietary feature that could be targeted to improve health,” Kate Bermingham, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at King's College London and study researcher, said in a press release.[]

The analysis was based on data from more than 1,000 participants of the UK Zoe Predict 1 study, which researchers used to evaluate how snack quantity, snack quality, and snack timing impacted people’s blood fats and insulin levels. They found that higher quality snacks, which they defined as consisting of foods with a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio, were associated with better blood fats and insulin levels, whereas they did not find any association between snack quantity, in terms of calories consumed or quantity of food, and these levels.

Snack timing was associated with changing blood fats and insulin levels, with snacks eaten later in the evening associated with worse metrics than snacks eaten at other times of the day. Blood fats and insulin levels were used as they are both indicators of cardiometabolic health.

What makes a high-quality snack?

The researchers defined a high-quality snack as a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio. Several foods and food combos can fit this definition, dietitians say, but exactly what snacks are best for people will vary individually.

“A high-quality snack is one that nourishes your body and is satisfying and pleasurable to eat,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and the author of “Unapologetic Eating.” Rumsey adds that it can be a good idea to encourage patients to lean into their hunger queues and ask themself, “What sounds good right now?” when choosing what to eat. 

To get a nutrient-dense and energy-packed snack, she recommends choosing a snack that includes carbohydrates, protein, fat, or both.  

One dietitian-vetted snack option is a fruit and nut or seed butter combo for those who do not have allergies and can tolerate those foods, says Amity Lui, MS, RD, a sports dietitian at Worksite Wellness Nutrition.

“Instead of having just a banana or an apple on its own, pairing it with a nut or seed butter creates a combination of all food groups, which can help to increase fullness, satiety, and better management of blood sugars,” she says.

However, she adds that it’s likely not beneficial to fixate too much over high versus low-quality snacks all the time.

“Snacks are typically eaten for energy and to curb hunger between meals, but this may not be the only reason we consume snacks,” says Lui. “Food provides our bodies with energy, which is a physical need. However, we can eat for psychological functions, including emotional or social desires.”

When is the best time for ‘snack time’?

The research showed that eating snacks late in the evening can have a negative impact on cardiometabolic health. According to Lui, eating too close to bedtime can also be uncomfortable for some people, impact sleep quality, or aggravate conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). People with GERD may want to be particularly mindful about late-night snacking, or sitting upright for a few minutes after their last meal, says Lui. In general, she recommends allowing about two to four hours for food to digest after a meal or one to two hours after a snack, depending on the type and size.

Aside from the above, however, “there are no strict recommendations to avoid snacking at any particular time,” Lui adds. “Meal times and size can always be adjusted based on hunger levels if you consumed a spontaneous, or larger than planned, snack.”

When helping a client plan out snacks, Rumsey encourages people to focus more on personal hunger cues than the time on the clock.

“I coach my clients to eat upon their first signs of hunger to avoid getting to that point of extreme hunger, even if it is close to mealtime,” Rumsey says. “Since you can't predict when you will be hungry and when you might need a snack before your next meal, knowing what snacks you like and having them available is helpful.”

How many times a day should people snack?

The researchers did not find a relationship between the number of times a person snacked per day and the health metrics measured. Similarly, dietitians say that people may need a different number of snacks per day depending on their energy expenditure, nutritional needs, and preferences—which can “vary drastically,” says Lui. 

“Snacking can depend on personal nutrition needs, schedule, and lifestyle,” she adds.

While the dietitians tend to recommend clients eat every three to five hours during the day, even this can vary depending on the person’s meal size and needs, Lui says. Snacking in between meals can be helpful for maintaining consistent energy levels or blood glucose control for people with diabetes, depending on their doctor’s recommendations. Snacking can also help people get in extra nutrients or calories as needed, she adds.

“For example, spreading smaller amounts of protein throughout the day is going to be more beneficial than front or backloading a large amount of protein in one particular meal, [like consuming] minimal protein throughout the day and then having a large steak at dinner,” she says.

Overall, researchers and dietitians seem aligned on the idea that high-quality daily snacking can benefit health. So while it can be important not to eat too late at night and to be mindful of consuming snacks with a robust nutrient-to-calorie ratio, encouraging patients to feed their bodies when hungry may help them take better care of their bodies.

“Snacking tends to get a bad rap, when in fact it can be a super helpful way to boost your energy and nourish yourself between meals,” says Rumsey. .

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