There was a time when the chorizo sandwich gave in to hummus and tomato with fresh cheese in the mid-shift snack at the Seat plants in Barcelona. As part of a scientific study on nutrition, the automobile company replaced white bread and industrial sausages in the snacks it offered its workers with healthier alternatives: specifically, some 600 of the 14,000 employees that the company has in the province participated in this project, which had the approval of the works council after tasting the new snacks. From this study, an improvement in the life habits and health status of the participants resulted; but from the anecdote of the preserve to the chorizo sandwich something else shines through: snacking, depending on how, can be more or less beneficial for health.
Having a snack between meals is a very widespread practice among the population – more than 90% of citizens, according to a US study – and represents up to 25% of total daily energy intake in the UK and US and between 14% and 31% in Europe. But the scientific community is still limiting its benefits or harm to health. Everything depends, according to the experts and the literature consulted, on how, how much and when the snack is. “If you eat a snack behavior is considered beneficial or detrimental, it is largely based on how you define snack. The term tends to connote energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods, such as cakes, cookies, chips and other salty snacks and sugary drinks (…). However, it can also refer simply to an occasion to eat outside of breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” a pair of researchers from the University of Minnesota advanced in an article in 2018. The very definition of what a snack, a snack or a snack means, makes it difficult to study its effects on health and “complicates its dietary reputation”, the American scientists point out. But not everything is black or white with this practice.
In fact, although the frequency of meals and its relationship with obesity or cardiovascular health have been studied, science is not clear about whether it is more beneficial to eat few or many times a day: there is no robust evidence that it is best. eat two, three or four meals, for example, nor are the long-term effects of the opposite known, such as intermittent fasting. A review in 10 European countries revealed that the usual feeding frequency varied between five and seven times per day. “There is some support that increased eating frequency has a beneficial impact on markers of cardiovascular health, but the quality of this support remains weak,” the Minnesota researchers admit. And they suggest that these effects may dance depending on each individual’s body mass index (BMI), food selection, or snacking motivation. It all depends.
Ramon Estruch, doctor at the Hospital Clinic de Barcelona and coordinator of the Predimed study, which investigates the impact of the Mediterranean diet on health, explains the origin of the recommendation to eat, for example, five times a day: “There was a tendency to recommend taking something at mid-morning and at snack time so as not to go to meals very hungry. The snacks they would be good for that: to avoid compulsive eating ”. The doctor, who was also the principal investigator of the study with the SEAT workers, admits, however, that the scientific community is now navigating “troubled waters”, among other things, due to the potential benefits that intermittent fasting can have in the longevity.
Estruch summarizes the evidence on snacks: “They help provide energy when many hours pass between meals and also reduce appetite for the next meal, so the amount eaten is reduced. Also, they can provide extra nutrients if they are healthy (fruit, nuts). The disadvantage is that they can provide an excess of calories and if they are ultra-processed, they add salt, simple sugars and saturated fats, to the detriment of health”. Precisely about the benefits (or not) of snacking between meals, a group of researchers from King’s College London recently presented preliminary data from a study at the American Society of Nutrition congress that found that “poor quality [de los snacks] and late-night snacks are risk factors for cardiometabolic health, but high-quality snacks may have health benefits.”
The quality of the snack is key
It all depends on what is eaten and when it is ingested, agrees Jordi Salas-Salvado, Professor of Nutrition at the Rovira i Virgili University and principal investigator of the Center for Network Biomedical Research (CIBER) of Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition of the Institute of Health Carlos III: “The quality of the pecking is very important. Snacking on healthy things does not have the same deleterious effects on health.” And he gives an example: “At mid-morning, if you eat a stick of bread with salt, a very high glycemic peak occurs and, four hours later, your sugar drops and you have a ferocious appetite and you have to eat more. If you eat, instead, a handful of nuts, that peak does not occur and you are not as hungry after a few hours.
And who says bread with salt, says “popcorn, nachos, pastries, chips…”. Any type of carbohydrate, the specialist specifies, which makes sugar rise sharply. “Continuous snacking that produces postprandial glucose spikes is harmful because it is related to obesity,” he specifies. When these carbohydrates make sugar rise quickly, Salas-Salvado explains, “the pancreas secretes insulin, the cell captures glucose and uses it; but after three hours, the sugar drops a little more than normal, and the brain realizes that and causes you to be much hungrier, a ferocious appetite ”. However, the healthiest snacks, “such as guacamole with cucumber, hummus with carrots or yogurt with strawberries,” exemplifies the scientist, do not produce these glycemic spikes.
Among the consequences of unhealthy snacking between meals is the risk of weight gain, due to the extra energy contribution it entails. In this sense, a scientific review found, in fact, that the consumption of high-energy snacks can contribute to increased intake and weight in adult populations, but the researchers also emphasized that “the context in which the snacks are taken snacks, such as eating them alone or outside the home, late in the day or in front of a television, are also important for this behavior”. The scientists point out, on the other hand, that motivation is another key variable, since these snacks can be eaten for various reasons, such as hunger itself, food culture, distraction or boredom, among others. “Some studies suggest that eating in the absence of hunger, or without a biological signal, is associated with higher caloric intake,” the Minnesota researchers note.
Another study also highlighted the influence of these context factors, emphasizing that “pre-existing health status may influence snack choice and its effect on weight.” On this point, an investigation from the University of Cambridge with 10,000 adults described that snacking has a different relationship with health according to BMI: in people with a normal weight, the intake of snacks was associated with lower total body fat in men and women, while in those who were overweight or obese, snack intake was associated with a greater waist circumference and subcutaneous fat in women and with more waist circumference in men. The people with more BMI, in addition, “had a higher intake of chips, sweets, chocolates and ice creams and a lower intake of yogurt and nuts compared to normal-weight participants,” the scientists found.
The Danger of Late Night Snacks
The moment chosen for the snack is also key. Extending the snack at night, after dinner, for example, is not a good idea. “Obesity is closely associated with eating at night and, in fact, there is a nocturnal psychological alteration: they are night eaters, who devour carbohydrates at night. There are studies that associate night snacking with obesity and this may be due to psychological situations or stress”, explains Salas-Salvado. Estruch only sets one exception: “Diabetics are advised to have something to drink at midnight to avoid lowering their sugar levels too much.”
In an article published in Physiology & Behavior, scientist Richard Mattes, of the Department of Nutrition at Purdue University (Indiana), concludes that while snacking is not “inherently problematic” and even “can be incorporated into healthy diets”, this must be done with “knowledge and vigilance”. “Although snacking can contribute important nutrients, this often comes with an energy cost that negatively outweighs the positive contribution to diet quality. Pecking is a relatively new behavior, but it is likely to persist. Learning to turn it into a positive intake behavior must be a priority ”, he ditch.
With regard to the anecdote of the chorizo sandwich in the study of the Seat workers, machines of selling with healthy products. The study was completed, but workers continue to have vending machines with apples, yogurt or fiber cookies at their disposal.
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Source: EL PAIS