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Americans Have a Snack Problem

Your snack habit may be even more calorie-dense than you think, recent research suggests. A study estimated that snacking contributes to around 20% of an average American’s daily caloric intake, and these snacks often add little nutritional value. The scientists found, though, that people with type 2 diabetes seem to eat fewer snack-related calories.

The study was led by scientists from The Ohio State University. Research has consistently shown that Americans’ diets have gotten bigger over time. And it’s likely that these extra calories have contributed to a rise in obesity and other metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. But the study authors say that little work has been done to specifically quantify the snacking patterns of adults with type 2.

To better understand the issue, they decided to look at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative poll of Americans’ dieting and lifestyle habits regularly run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They analyzed NHANES data from 2005 to 2016, looking at the responses of more than 23,000 adults over the age of 30. These volunteers filled out a 24-hour diary of their most recent meals and gave blood samples used to measure their level of blood sugar control.

The researchers found that people reported eating an average two snacks a day, no matter their diabetes status. Those without type 2 consumed roughly 500 calories from their snacks, while those with diagnosed diabetes or prediabetes ate slightly fewer. Overall, between 19.5% and 22.4% of a person’s daily calorie intake came from snacking, or about the same amount we might get from a full meal. And people’s snacks were typically not filled with the healthiest ingredients. Nearly half of the calories consumed in-between meals came from foods considered snacks and sweets, for instance, while 15% of these calories were from alcohol beverages in those without diabetes.

“Regardless of diabetes status, our study shows that snacks contribute very little nutritional quality to the overall diet and may result in poorer dietary patterns,” the team wrote in their paper, published in October in the journal PLOS Global Public Health.

The findings suggest that people with diabetes often make a conscious effort to cut down on snacking, and that further indicates that people are willing to listen to and heed advice on what kinds of foods they should eat or avoid, the study authors say. But they note that everyone could benefit from these lessons.

“Diabetes education looks like it’s working, but we might need to bump education back to people who are at risk for diabetes and even to people with normal blood glucose levels to start improving dietary behaviors before people develop chronic disease,” said study author Christopher Taylor, professor of medical dietetics in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at OSU, in a statement from the university.

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