Americans are piling on the equivalent of a meal’s worth of extra calories each day from snacking, according to new research — and those foods contribute very little in the way of nutrition, since they’re typically high in carbs and sugars and low in fiber and protein.
Based on surveys of more than 23,700 adults over the age of 30, scientists found that in-between meal noshing added about 400 to 500 calories each day to the U.S. adult diet — an amount that went above what many participants ate for breakfast.
“Snacks are contributing a meal’s worth of intake to what we eat without it actually being a meal,” said senior study author Christopher Taylor, PhD, RD, a professor of medical dietetics in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at The Ohio State University in Columbus, in a statement.
“You know what dinner is going to be: a protein, a side dish or two. But if you eat a meal of what you eat for snacks, it becomes a completely different scenario of, generally, carbohydrates, sugars, not much protein, not much fruit, not a vegetable. So it’s not a fully well-rounded meal.”
For the analysis, Dr. Taylor and his collaborators evaluated data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, collected between 2005 to 2016, capturing 24 hours of food consumption for each participant.
The results, published recently in the journal PLoS Global Public Health, found that snacks accounted for about a fifth of total energy intake.
Convenience foods high in carbohydrates and fats, like potato chips and doughnuts, made up the largest proportion of snacks, followed by sweets, alcoholic beverages, and sugary nonalcoholic drinks. Protein, milk and dairy, fruits, and grains made up a smaller proportion of snack foods, and vegetables lagged far behind, according to study authors.
People With Diabetes Snack Better
A focus of this research was comparing snacking patterns among adults with type 2 diabetes to those who have pre-diabetes or do not have diabetes. About 70 percent of study participants didn’t have diabetes, just over 20 percent had prediabetes, and nearly 9 percent had either controlled or poorly controlled type 2 diabetes.
The findings revealed that the average snacks consumed were higher in carbs, total sugar, and added sugar for those without diabetes and with prediabetes than those with type 2 diabetes, suggesting that adults with type 2 diabetes may be taking steps to limit carbs and sugar in their diets as stressed in medical nutrition therapy guidelines.
“This study reinforces dietary patterns in the United States do not align with current dietary guidelines and that people with controlled diabetes tend to be more health-conscious,” says Taylor Wallace, PhD, an adjunct professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Dr. Wallace was not involved in the study.
The results indicated that people who are at risk for diabetes and people with normal blood glucose levels could benefit from more dietary education to improve their eating behaviors before they develop chronic disease.
Stacey Krawczyk, RD, director of nutrition and wellness for the American Diabetes Association, stresses that diabetes nutrition education centers around the Diabetes Plate Method, which emphasizes protein, high-quality carbohydrates, and nonstarchy vegetable consumption.
“It is encouraging to see that this education may be impacting eating habits in this study, and further reinforces our need for nutrition education among those with and without diabetes,” says Krawczyk.
Fruits, Veggies, and Protein Better for Snacking
No matter a person’s diabetes status, nutrition content of snacks was poor across the board in this study, including mostly refined grains and added sugar, yet lacking in dark green vegetables, beans, or seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids.
“This data emphasizes the need for clinicians to assess snack intake, both in quantity and quality. While recommendations on frequency must be individualized, nutrition interventions must target nutrient-dense snacking, including snacks higher in protein, fiber, vegetables, and lower in simple sugars, and refined carbohydrates, while maintaining caloric intake,” concluded the researchers.
Wallace emphasizes looking at a day’s total dietary picture and seeing whether snacks will fulfill our nutritional needs. A wide range of snacks are available that are high in nutrition and low in calories.
“My go-tos for snacking are fruits — such as apples, grapes, pears, blueberries — nuts, and whey-protein shakes, especially on days that I work out,” says Wallace, who is also a member of the American Society for Nutrition. “I generally also toss a banana and a scoop of fiber in my protein shake.”
This latest study aligns with previous research showing that snacking tends to be unhealthy. A scientific paper published in September 2023 in the European Journal of Nutrition looking at snacking habits of 854 individuals found that many people are undoing the benefits of healthy meals by consuming unhealthy snacks, which increases the risk of strokes and heart disease.
“Considering 95 percent 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,” said Sarah Berry, PhD, a coauthor of that study and an associate professor in the department of nutritional sciences at King’s College London, in a statement.