The odd day of snacking isn’t dangerous, she says. “But many times over the years, consistently high blood sugar levels can start to damage your blood vessels, increasing your risk for things like type 2 diabetes.”
Weight gain is another risk. Insulin, the hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood, tells your cells to absorb what you eat. Its counterpart, glucagon, does the opposite: signals your body that it’s time to start burning your energy stores. But glucagon is only released when insulin levels drop to baseline – another argument for spacing out meals.
“One thing we know is that changing your snacking habit is one of the quickest and easiest ways to change the quality of your diet.”
Playing with the metabolism
A 2019 study on rats showed that snacking leads to weight gain and insulin resistance, whether that snack is healthy or not. “There are almost no studies in humans comparing different mealtimes to determine whether one mealtime strategy is better than the others,” notes Emily Manoogian, a clinical researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in her 2019 article “When to eat”. But your circadian rhythm — or biological clock — uses your meal times to establish itself. “It is therefore important to eat at regular times,” says Manoogian, “while irregular eating habits have been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
Skipping breakfast, for example, has been associated with late snacking, high in fat and sugar. But in the case of three square meals compared to a model of grazing on healthy, balanced micro-meals, the scientific evidence points to “different shots for different people”, says Professor Giles Yeo, author of Why Calories Don’t Count, who studies the Brain Control of Body Weight study at the University of Cambridge.
With one notable exception. After-dinner snacking is especially likely to show up on the scale: “When you sleep, your metabolism drops,” he explains. “The calories you consume during the day are counted at your peak metabolic rate, while the calories you consume just before bed are going to be stored more than burned.” So stop hanging out in the fridge in your slippers.
And while the science is still in its infancy, there may be other downsides to those mid-morning bites. “Eating, and particularly refined carbohydrates, causes inflammation,” says Professor Janet Lord, from the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham. “Triggered at regular intervals, this process protects you from infections and is not harmful. Prolonged inflammation is what’s problematic – contributing to damage to blood vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease, bone and muscle loss as well and even at risk of dementia.
Snack constantly and it’s a potential risk: “Especially if you’re older because as we get older we end up with low-level inflammation all the time, so adding more inflammation to that is problematic.”
What if you just grab those little plant-based or protein-enhancing bars and balls? In the 1990s, a sweet snack meant a Mars Bar. In the 2000s, it turned into a cereal bar. According to a Euromonitor survey released this summer, the latest global trend is healthy snacks, a market that is expected to reach $152.5 billion by 2030. The labels on it all suggest a glut of guilt-free options … is not it ?
“A calorie of protein makes you feel fuller than a calorie of fat, which makes you feel fuller than a calorie of carbs,” Yeo says. “So a protein bar, as long as it’s not loaded with sugar, will make you feel full longer. That’s an advantage of eating the protein bar over a Mars bar.”
Still, Yeo says these often contain the same amount of sugar as a chocolate bar. “No one eats a Mars bar thinking they’re eating a health food. But they don’t call these bars ‘high protein and sugar’: they only say ‘high protein’ on the In fact, a study from Arizona State University, published last month [OCTOBER]found that people who ate a protein bar every day were more likely to gain weight than lose it, since many are high in calories.
How about these raw bars, made with 100% fruit and nuts? “If they’ve been reduced to glu, the fiber and protein are still there, but your body has to do a lot more work to break them down, so it’s somewhere between a food without them and one with them.”
All of which means it might be time to empty that secret snack drawer. Or, if you feel the need, remember the old adage: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Also add a handful of seeds or nuts. Just try not to eat them processed into a bar and squeezed out of a supermarket shelf.
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