People Who Snack Tend to Eat Healthier

A new study finds that snacking can actually be indicative of healthy eating habits

Snacking may be associated with a more nutrient-dense diet, according to researchers at Auburn University and Beijing University. The study, published in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that total fruit, whole fruit, whole grains, oils, sodium, and milk scores were all positively associated with snacking frequency.

During the past 30 years our meal and snack patterns have changed, according to Dr. Claire Zizza, Associate Professor at Auburn University and study author. Adults’ snacking behavior (number of times per day, energy contribution, and amount of food) has increased considerably. But few studies have examined the role of snacking on overall diet quality, and previous literature has only focused on the contribution of snacking to daily intakes of single nutrients.

Snacking has probably received a bad reputation for a number of reasons. One reason is we have not looked at the total impact of snacking, and rather we have focused on the energy (which includes the fat, carbohydrate, and protein) contribution of snacking. This study is the first to look at how snacking contributes to the overall quality of individual’s diets.

Using the Healthy Eating Index-2005 (HEI-2005), researchers were able to look at snacking from this perspective in a national sample of adults. They examined the association between daily snacking frequency and HEI-2005, looking at how snacking related to a composite (overall) score that included 12 nutrient and food-based recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although the relationship was modest, the direction of the association was notably positive. Snacking was not associated with poorer overall diet quality, and did contribute to a slightly more nutrient-dense diet.

"We were surprised by the findings because there is a widely held belief that snacking cannot be a part of a healthy diet. We found on average that as snacking increased so did individuals' overall diet (both snack and meal occasions) quality," says Zizza. "A key finding is that ‘people who eat snacks have healthier diets,’ but everyone, regardless of the amount of snacking they did, had diets that are not as healthy as we would like to see."

Another important finding? Results suggest that individuals do choose fruits, milk, and whole-grain products as snacks, and this behavior should continue to be reinforced. SupermarketGuru wants to remind you to increase your dark green and orange vegetables, legumes and total grains, because snacking was not at all associated with these healthy food groups in this study.

Future work on snacking, says Zizza, may be able to tell us more about the differences in this dietary behavior between various groups of people, like women versus men, younger versus older adults, racial and cultural differences, and so on. For now, SupermarketGuru suggests you choose fruits and veggies for snack occasions, as well as whole grains, and nuts and seeds like almond butter or a handful of unsalted nuts. Keep a container of cut veggies in the refrigerator, and a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter so it’s in easy reach for the whole family.

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