A quarter of people undermine healthy mealtimes with unhealthy snacks, new research warns

Snacking on unhealthy treats like cookies and cakes can undo the benefits of eating healthily at mealtimes.

Tasty snacks like crisps, cakes and cookies can help to fill the gaps between mealtimes – but new research shows they are undermining the benefits of eating healthy meals.

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Around a quarter of people who ensure they eat healthy meals are undoing the benefits by eating unhealthy snacks, researchers say.

Publishing their findings in the European Journal of Nutrition, they warn unhealthy snacks increase the risk of strokes and cardiovascular disease.

Researchers from the School of Life Course & Population Sciences and ZOE, which is behind the world’s largest nutritional research programme, looked at the snacking habits of 854 people.

Their results show around a quarter of the UK’s energy intake comes from snacks such as cereal bars, pastries and fruit, with the average snacker having 2.28 snacks a day.

Around half of the participants said they don’t match their snacks to their main meals in terms of healthiness, which the researchers warn can have a negative effect on health measures, including blood sugar levels and fat levels.

Healthy mains and sugary treats

More than a quarter (26 per cent) of the participants said they ate healthy main meals, but poor-quality snacks, such as highly processed food and sugary treats.

These unhealthy snacks are linked with higher BMI and higher levels of fat, which are associated with metabolic diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

“Considering 95 per cent 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 Dr Sarah Berry from King’s College London and chief scientist at ZOE.

Snacking isn’t inherently unhealthy, the researchers say, as long as the snacks are healthy. Those who ate high-quality snacks like nuts and fresh fruits were more likely to have a healthy weight, along with better metabolic health and decreased hunger levels.

The most popular snacks the participants reported eating were cookies, fruit, nuts and seeds, cheese, cakes, pies, granola and cereal bars.

“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,” said Dr Kate Bermingham from King’s College London and senior scientist at ZOE.

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The researchers added that the timing of snacking can have an impact on health, with analysis showing snacking after 9pm was associated with worse blood markers.

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