The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Snacking Can Be Good For You

Snacking Can Be Good For You

In the News

February 26, 2012

Snacking can 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 focused on the contribution of snacking to daily intakes of single nutrients. 

Snacking has probably gotten 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. Here, 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 in the positive is notable. 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.”

Interestingly, snacking was also associated with a more healthful sodium score, which goes against what researchers expected to find – especially since salty snack foods are popular snack choices. However, since less-snacked-on items like meat, vegetables and grains are higher in sodium, their omission from the diet as a snack choice in this study may help explain the lower sodium numbers.

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. Health professionals can also talk to consumers about increasing their dark green and orange vegetables, legumes and total grains, because snacking was not at all associated with these healthy food groups in this study. 

“Since snacking was not related to eating vegetables, showcasing pre-cut and washed vegetables as snacks would be a step in the right direction. Retailers and health professionals can help consumers choose healthy snack foods and beverages, and show them how to read food and beverage labels,” adds Zizza.

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, adults should continue to be encouraged to make better snack choices by selecting options that are more than just “empty calories.”