Harvard Health Letter

Snacks: Quality vs. frequency

When it comes to snacking, is what you eat more important than how often you snack? A study published in the July 2015 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tracked the snacking habits and foods of more than 200 people (average age 42). After two-and-a-half years, researchers observed that people who snacked on fruits and vegetables had, on average, a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who snacked on desserts and sweets. BMI is a measure of body fat based on a person's height and weight. Calories, frequency of snacking, and the time of day snacks were eaten didn't seem to affect BMI.

The study didn't show that the quality of snacks people ate was responsible for the lower BMI. However, researchers say the findings support the idea that wise snack choices can contribute to a healthy diet, and that snacking isn't necessarily unhealthy unless you choose empty calories such as chips, desserts, and sugar-sweetened drinks. Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, underscores the importance of that approach: "Timing or frequency is not as important, as long as healthy snacks are selected." She recommends nuts such as almonds, peanuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts; hummus with baby carrots; peanut butter with celery or an apple; part-skim string cheese with a small bunch of grapes; or plain nonfat Greek yogurt with blueberries.