Your Snack Choices May Sabotage Your Healthy Eating Habits

Are your snack choices undoing all the good work your diet is doing? Skip the ultra-processed stuff, and make the most of your plan.

By Elizabeth Millard |

Even if you follow a generally healthy diet, snacking in a certain way could increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to a new study in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Researchers looked at food consumption habits and cardiometabolic health markers—including blood sugar levels, blood pressure, waist circumference, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides—for 1 000 people in the U.K. They focused the analysis of consumption habits on snacking frequency and quality, and found that about 24 percent of daily calories came from these snacks, and 95 percent of participants snacked regularly.

As for the quality of snacks, the researchers found that half of participants didn’t match the healthiness of their meals to their snacks, and about a quarter were undoing the benefits of healthy meals because of their snack choices. For these participants, the most-consumed snacks were cakes and pies, breakfast cereals, pastries, candy, and ice cream.

The researchers found an association between these unhealthy snack options and an increased likelihood of accumulating visceral fat mass—the type of belly fat that’s often been linked to cardiovascular problems and other metabolic syndrome issues.

Another variable in the downsides of snacking was timing: Researchers connected snacking after 9:00 p.m. with poorer blood markers like cholesterol and triglycerides compared to eating earlier in the day. Researchers noted that this may be due to late-evening snackers choosing options that are higher in fat and sugar.

They did point out that snacking on its own didn’t cause the cardiometabolic health effects—when participants chose healthy snacks like nuts and fresh fruit, their cardiometabolic risk did not increase. But when they chose unhealthy snacks, those risks got a boost, even if they ate healthy meals.

Healthy Snack Options to Add to Your Meal Plan

An occasional snack of less-than-healthy fare won’t do much when compared to a consistent habit of making nutritious choices, according to Kacie Vavrek, R.D., outpatient dietitian at Ohio State University Sports Medicine.

“If you want a cookie, have a cookie,” she tells Bicycling. “But in terms of a larger strategy, it may be helpful to think of snacks as a way to fuel performance and contribute to your overall health goals, with the same thoughtfulness you’d put into choosing your meals.”

Making sure to get enough calories is often a solid first step, she adds. Even though it might seem like snacking would help prevent skimping on calories, the opposite may be happening. Vavrek says some athletes may not be as hungry for meals if they snack too often, and that can lead to lower daily calorie counts overall.

“This is the biggest misstep and it tends to get overlooked,” she says. “If you’re not getting enough calories and you’re cycling regularly, you’re basically sabotaging yourself because you’re not creating the energy you need for optimal performance.”

In terms of what to eat, Vavrek says that depends on when you’re reaching for that snack. If it’s before you exercise, that will be a different choice than what you should pick afterward, or on recovery days.

Before-exercise snacks should involve quick-digesting carbs, she says. Having a snack during exercise is only needed if you’re going for a longer ride of about 90 minutes or more, and that’s when you’d want the quick-digesting carbs but without the protein—like sports gels or dates.

After exercise, you can add in more protein and also more fat, so you stay full for longer.

In general, snacking about an hour or so before you ride is ideal, and for that, it’s best to get a blend of lean protein and carbohydrates, with options like:

  • Toast with half an avocado and a tablespoon of honey
  • Small bowl of oatmeal or yogurt with granola and berries
  • Banana or apple with nut butter and raisins
  • Bagel with nut butter
  • Skinless grilled chicken with a small serving of sweet potatoes

If you’re looking for some options after a ride, you could opt for a protein shake, a small portion of whole grain pasta with chicken, or a fried egg on toast.

The best strategy is to play around with snack options and be aware of how they affect you, Vavrek suggests.

“Food choices are highly individual and a snack that fuels up a friend might make you feel sluggish,” she says. “Because of that, experiment with different choices to figure out what works best for you, and especially what makes you feel energised as a result.”

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