Three square meals a day is indispensable for life. Earlier, our ancestors ate full-fledged meals in the morning and night with something light to fill the tummy during evenings. With the advent of the modern age there have been tremendous changes in our lifestyle and mankind has reached a stage where we eat five to six times daily splitting the meals into smaller portions and snacks remains an integral part of this meal schedule. Some love to eat heavily during breakfast and lunch while some love to munch upon something every once a while to keep themselves out of hunger pangs. If you look at these different methods, even experts agree that splitting food into smaller portions and keeping yourself satisfied through the day is the best way to avoid overeating and hunger pangs. Despite such calculated meal intakes and multitudinous availability of food there is no shortage of obesity, overweight and health problems that attack mankind from every direction possible. Where are we making a mistake and what could be done to avoid these erroneous circumstances?
Nothing Nutritious in Between
Snacking has become a regularity in each of our daily schedules: mid-morning snacks, evening snacks and even late-night snacking are a routine affair in many people’s homes. Such between-meal snacks contribute a majority of the solid fats, added sugars and sodium in our diets which are great contributors of ‘empty’ calories that provide abundant energy but minimal nutrients. Snacks can be healthy or otherwise depending on what and when we consume. Snacking is healthy when we don’t pile upon calorie consumption over the day and the same snacking is also one of the critical causes of obesity and weight gain expressed as a public health concern when taken inappropriately. Our meals must contain all five food groups contributing towards nutrient requirements ideally. But when such nutrients remain unfulfilled snacks come to our rescue when we choose to eat smart. Such healthy snacking increases the nutrition graph by improving diet quality, reducing sodium and empty calorie intake and covering up for nutrition losses, if any. Such healthy snacking also moves fat intake from solid fats such as saturated and trans fats to mono- and polyunsaturated fats (MUFAs and PUFAs). People residing anywhere in the world consume more of sodium and empty calories while decreasing consumption of whole grains, plants, seafood, whole fruits and vegetables.
Eat your Nuts with Guts
Salads, pulses and fruits are regular snacking recommendations and nuts such as almonds, cashews and walnuts are highly recommended these days as a regular part of dietary guidelines. Nuts are nothing new to mankind and their consumption dates back to as early as Stone Age. Since then they have been a prized possession around the world right from Persia and Europe to China and Scandinavia. Tree nuts are great sources of unsaturated fats, fiber, minerals and vitamins whose regular consumption is associated with numerous advantages such as reduction in blood cholesterol levels and CVD risk. Presently, nuts find themselves in many delicacies prepared, as snacks, spreads and recipe ingredients. They are enjoyed in various forms by people present worldwide. They are one of the most tempting snacks that’s high in fat content proving itself to be energy dense. But, these nuts mainly contain unsaturated fats-polyunsaturated fats in walnuts and pine nuts and monounsaturated fats in pistachios, almonds and hazelnuts. Cashews, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts contain more saturated fats whose increased consumption can lead to increase in cholesterol levels but another nut called the chestnut is lower in all types of fats and high in starch carbs than other nuts.
A National Health & Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) shows that tree nut consumption was linked to better nutrient adequacy, higher diet quality and improved health risk markers. Being a rich source of energy there have been concerns regarding their role in weight gain as individuals perceive this snack to be fattening and ineffective against heart protection. But we do have authentic cohort studies that support the benefits of nut consumption including reduction in all-cause mortality, death due to heart problems, cancer and even reduction in weight gain. Such benefits of these nutrient-rich tree nuts prompted a group of researchers in America to replace between-meal snacks with tree nuts or almonds. This group went about researching on the feasibility of nuts as a snack by creating a tree nut composite that had details about the relative frequency of consumption of different nuts such as walnuts, pecans and almonds in a given population. The research team’s main aim was to find out whether replacing other snacking options with nuts could have effect on dietary constituents such as sodium, potassium, solid fats, sugars, fatty acids and magnesium.
Dietary data drawn from NHANES was available for 17,444 kids, adolescents and adults ≥1y. Excluding kids who consumed breast milk the study team was left with 6,881 kids and adolescents and 10,563 adults (≥20y). Two recalls were taken with the first one taken face-to-face and the second one done over phone. While 85% participants completed both the recalls the remaining 15% could take up only either of the two. Information on the favorable food groups including nuts, seeds, added sugars, solid fats and oils of all the participants were also noted down. The team came up with two different models. Model 1 replaced all between-meal snacks with tree nuts on a calorie-per-calorie basis. Model 2 exempted all between-meal snacks such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables and grains containing more than 50% whole grains. Both the models were applicable only to solid snacks with no changes made to between-meal beverages such as fruit juices, soft drinks, cola and alcohol. The diet of those individuals who have already been consuming tree nuts as snacks was not altered in any way.
A composite tree nut was made based on current consumption patterns. For this, a list of all tree nuts consumed by the participants was made and then weighted frequency of consumption was marked and a weight was given to each tree nut based on its frequency of consumption. Almonds were the commonly consumed tree nut which was assigned a weight of 0.268. Other nuts assigned values included walnuts (.208), pecans (0.088), dry roast almonds (0.086), cashews (0.076), pistachio nuts (0.069) and dry roast almonds without salt (0.071). The nutrition value of the composite tree nut was used in the models depending on the amount of snack energy that’s eligible for substitution. The researchers found potassium, fiber and magnesium to be nutrients of interest. The 2010 Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), an energy-adjusted measure of diet quality based on 12 components including 9 healthy components such as total fruits, whole fruit, total vegetables, greens and beans, whole grains, dairy, total protein, protein from plant and seafood sources and fatty acid and 3 other unhealthy components such as refined grains, energy from solid fat and added sugars and sodium was also used in the study.
Among the 17,444 participants 76.9% participants had a snack on the first day of recall. Overall mean energy from snacks was 303 kcal/d and the median was 204 kcal/d. Among those who consumed snacks, mean energy from snacks was 394 kcal/d and median was 293 kcal/d. Mean energy from solid snacks eligible for substitution was 252 kcal/d and median was 148 kcal/d. In Model 1 the amount of solid snacks that was eligible for substitution depended on age: 250 (ages 1–3y), 341(4–8y), 374 (9–13y), 350 (14–19y), 316 (20–30y), 309 (31–50y), 285 (51–70y), and 206 (71 + y). Median energy from snacks (293 kcal/d) corresponds to 51 g of almonds or 45g of walnuts. Cookies, brownies, frozen dairy dessert, cakes, pies and candy containing chocolates were the primary source of snack calories from solid food. Popcorns, bananas, apples and other fruits contributed to 1% of snack calories from solid foods. Results showed that:
Replacing American Snacks with Tree Nuts Increases Consumption of Key Nutrients Among US Children and Adults: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12937-017-0238-5
I’m Confused-are Nuts a Healthy Snack? https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/ask-the-expert/nuts-as-a-healthy-snack
Tree Nuts & Peanuts as Components of a Healthy Diet: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/138/9/1736S/4750848
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