Here’s How to Snack for Better Blood Sugar Control, According to New Research


When it comes to snacking, new research suggests what you eat and when you eat may have the most impact on your heart and metabolic health.

The new study, presented Monday at NUTRITION 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, examined the snacking habits of more than 1,000 people in order to determine how snacking affects health, and whether quality, quantity, frequency, or timing made any difference.

“We [were] interested in not only what you eat, but also how you eat,” study lead author, Kate Bermingham, PhD, post-doctoral research assistant at King’s College London, toldHealth.

“Snacking is a common dietary behavior and many people ask us whether they should be snacking or not.” Bermingham added. “Our research question was, ‘Is what you are snacking on more important than how frequently you snack?’”

Snacking has become part of everyday life for most Americans and many Europeans. According to 2023 research in the journal Nutrients, more than 90% of U.S. adults report eating one or more snacks on any given day, with an average of 1.2–3 snacking occasions per day. And all that snacking adds up to extra calories as well as impactful nutrients like sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.

Here’s what to know about the health effects of those in-between meals, and how to create a snack—and snacking routine—that provides the most benefit.

Quality and Timing of Snacks Matter Most

For the new research, which is still considered preliminary, Bermingham and her colleagues looked at data from the ZOE Predict study, an ongoing, in-depth nutritional research project in the U.K.

Using information on just over 1,000 subjects, 95% of whom described themselves as snackers, the team analyzed their dietary patterns over 2–4 days. Snacks were given a quality score based on their healthfulness (or lack thereof).

“An example of a high-quality snack is nuts and seeds or fruits,” Bermingham said. “An unhealthful, highly processed snack included candy or cookies.” Researchers also took stock of the timing of people’s snacks, identifying late-night snacks as foods eaten after 9 P.M.

From there, the team looked at various measures of subjects’ health, including weight, blood glucose, insulin, and blood lipids, to see how they correlated with snack quantity, quality, and timing.

People who ate high-quality snacks were more likely to have healthier triglycerides and blood sugar levels than those who ate highly processed snacks. Additionally, those who ate their snacks later in the evening had unfavorable blood sugar and triglyceride levels, compared with daytime snackers. Snack quantity and frequency did not appear to adversely affect health outcomes nearly as much as snack quality.

According to Bermingham, these conclusions offer promise for viewing snacks as a pathway toward better health. “The study concluded snacking behavior may be a key dietary target to improve risk factors for diet-related diseases, and healthy snacking earlier in the day can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

Why Snack Quality and Timing Matter for Health

It’s not surprising that “high-quality” foods (i.e. those with ample nutrients) would be linked to improved health indicators like lower blood sugar and blood lipids.

“High-quality snacks that provide whole grain carbohydrate, protein, and/or healthy fat can help stabilize blood sugar levels and thereby help to control diabetes and triglyceride levels,” Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of and author of Read It Before You Eat It—Taking You from Label to Table told Health.

However, the study’s finding that late-night snacking negatively impacted measures of health is a bit more noteworthy. It adds to previous research with similar conclusions about late-night eating. A 2022 study published in Cell Metabolism showed that late eating increased daytime hunger and decreased daytime energy expenditure, ultimately increasing obesity risk.1

The “why” behind these findings likely has to do with the quality of snacks people tend to choose at night.

“Many people snack after dinner and into the night (before bed) out of boredom or habit, not hunger,” Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, of Craving Something Healthy, told Health. “For many, a nighttime snack is a bag of chips or a bowl of ice cream. Those provide empty calories that don’t nourish your body. Snacking on those types of foods contributes to weight gain and may raise blood sugar and cholesterol.”

Also intriguing from the King’s College study is the fact that the quantity of snacks appeared to be less important for health than their quality.

According to Taub-Dix, this might be explained by the relatively short window of time observed in the study. “Snack quantity could have an impact on weight and digestion in the big picture, whereas snack quality could impact blood sugar levels soon after the snack is consumed, especially if the snack is laden with added sugar without any protein or fat to help slow up digestion,” she explained.

Choosing the Best Snacks—And When to Eat Them

Our national snacking habit is likely here to stay—so for better health, how can you make the best eating choices between meals?

“I look at snacks as mini-meals,” said Taub-Dix. “We are snacking more than ever, so it’s best to choose snacks with benefits. In other words, pick those that contain the trifecta of a combo of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat.”

Danahy arees that a balance of the three macronutrients is key for healthy munching. Some of her top recommendations for snacks with ideal amounts of nutrients include:

  • An apple with peanut or almond butter
  • Greek yogurt with berries and a handful of nuts
  • Grapes or other fruit with cheese and nuts
  • Pretzel chips or whole grain crackers with carrots and hummus

Finally, as for whether you should kick a nighttime snacking habit, Danahy’s answer is “maybe.”

“First, ask yourself if you need a night-time snack,” she said. “Most people don’t—unless dinner is very early or very light. If hunger keeps you awake at night, or you wake up in the middle of the night starving, then plan a healthy snack that sustains you, or try to eat dinner a little later.”

Cutting back on late-night noshing might yield other benefits, too, like better sleep and lower risk of heartburn. Then again, if you have a health condition that requires more frequent eating (such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, or requiring medication that must be taken with food), it’s always best to follow your doctor’s guidance on snack timing.

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