To Snack or Not to Snack?
Most of us are in a fortunate position that we never have to worry about where our next meal will come from. Not only that, when we want food, we can have it – even if it’s only a couple of hours away from our next meal.
The snacking industry is huge, and it’s not just made up of junk food (crisps, sweets etc) – there is an ever-growing market in healthy snacks, so we’re spoilt for choice!
Moving on from the standard 3 meals a day our (grand)parents ate, the new norm is for 3 meals plus 2 or 3 snacks each day. Why?
Well, for those of us wanting to lose or maintain weight, we’ve been told to eat little and often. For the rest of us, it’s just something that’s become ingrained in our culture. And not to be overly cynical, it’s also something encouraged by a multi-billion-pound global snack food industry.
Benefits of snacking
So what are the benefits of the “little and often approach”?
In terms of your metabolism, it’s thought that having too long a gap between each meal could put you into “starvation mode” and slow your metabolism down. Eating smaller amounts more frequently could therefore stoke the metabolic flame.
The idea behind this relates to the thermic effect of food (TEF) – ie. The body uses up calories to digest and absorb food (highest for protein, then carbs then fats) – and so it is said that eating more frequently increases this form of caloric expenditure.
For some people eating little and often can help to stave off hunger pangs, and prevent over eating at meals.
In terms of your digestive tract, smaller frequent meals or snacks are said to ease the load and help prevent bloating and digestive issues as the gut isn’t having to deal with large quantities all at once. For anyone with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) this is usually recommended to help ease reflux symptoms.
The idea of increasing vegetable portions to 6 to 8 per day can seem a little daunting to some clients and so I have often encouraged snacks as an opportunity to increase their vegetable intake. For example cherry tomatoes, avocados, chopped carrots and peppers are ideal for this.
For sports clients, protein rich snacks can help boost their daily protein requirements, without overloading their digestive tract with masses to digest at any one time.
Why I (personally) moved away from this approach
I was someone who grew up snacking and belonged very much in the “little and often” camp. Once I got into mindful eating this suited me really well, but I then found myself grazing throughout the day. In fact, I ate so often that when I had to take medication or a supplement on an empty stomach, it would take some seriously strategic planning and willpower!
At a conference last year I listened to a talk by Jeanette Hyde, a fellow BANT Nutritional Therapist and author of the Gut Makeover. I was intrigued by her approach and decided to give her 4-week gut reset a go. One of the main principles in this was to eat only three meals a day – no snacks - and allow at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast the following morning. Simple enough?
I’ll admit that the mere idea of getting rid of snacks made me feel seriously anxious, and for the first few days it felt really tough. Initially I found myself seriously overcompensating in each meal for fear of being ravenously hungry before the next one! I can laugh at it now, but back then the fear was real!
Benefits of 3 meals a day
So what are the benefits of the more traditional approach?
Removing the snacks from my day made me realise just how out of tune most of us are with hunger. Even with food so readily available, we often don’t allow ourselves to feel hungry. I discovered that I hadn’t been able or willing to tolerate anything beyond a mild hunger. Once I got past the first few days, the anxiety disappeared and I found myself far more relaxed about food than I had been in several years, perhaps ever . The feeling of mild to moderate hunger is healthy, and our bodies aren’t designed to be constantly eating. Over a couple of weeks, I adapted and what I had initially felt as hunger pains (probably more psychological, than physical) muted down to a mild feeling that was totally bearable. In fact I found myself less hungry between meals than I had felt between frequent snacks.
I have since found that the anxiety (I was never aware I had re-developed) about eating, eased off and my attitude towards food grew so much healthier.
On a physical level if you try to remove the snacks and find yourself physically feeling faint or nauseous, then this could be related to poor blood sugar control. Ask any nutritional therapist, and this is usually their first port of call in a nutrition programme. Ensuring that you are including good levels of protein and fats in each meal, minimising sugar and refined carbohydrates, as well as reducing alcohol and managing stress, are simple steps that you can take to manage this.
Going back to the thermic effect of food some studies suggest that it’s not so much the frequency of eating that affects this, but the total calories of food eaten during the day.
Eating less often is said to benefit weight loss by helping to regulate insulin levels.
Simply put, insulin is the hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar - transporting it into cells so that it can be used for energy, or converted into glycogen (stored energy). Once our glycogen stores are full, it stores this excess sugar as fat. So therefore insulin can drive fat production and encourage inflammation – generally something that we want to keep under control.
Every time we eat a meal, insulin gets released. A vital role for life. But if insulin is constantly being released, then this could encourage fat deposition in the body.
And what about the digestive tract? Eating less often gives it a chance to rest in between meals. Our bodies aren’t designed to be in a constant fed state, and fasting periods (between meals and overnight) are important for health. During this fasted state the body undergoes a process of autophagy, where proteins in the body are broken down and recycled. A form of house cleaning suggested to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other degenerative diseases.
So what works best?
In terms of weight loss research doesn’t seem to be in favour of either approach – 3 meals or small frequent meals -even when looking at underactive thyroid conditions. For some people cutting down the snacks simply cuts down on their overall calorie intake, contributing to weight loss, and potentially reduces their overall sugar intake if snacks have been on the sweet side. In this sense it’s not so much the frequency of eating, but an opportunity to eat less. Personally I don’t count calories with weight loss clients, nor encourage them to (more on that another time) – but it could still be an effective mechanism.
If you're an emotional eater or someone who eats through boredom – I would suggest that ditching the snacks and giving yourself strict (but kind!) guidelines of 3 meals a day is definitely worth giving a go.
Lifestyle can play an important role too. Frequent small meals may fit in better with your routine. Just try to ensure that you are taking time to eat (not whilst on the go) and give yourself a long gap of at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast.
There are some delicious and healthy snack foods out there, as well as some incredible recipes, but there is no reason that you can’t still eat these as part of your meal, or as a starter. I love taking a mezze or tapas style approach to lunches!
In terms of overall health I find myself leaning more towards the 3 meals (or less) a day approach. PersonallyI think that this is more in tune with how our bodies are designed to eat, as we are not designed to be in a constant fed state as many of us find ourselves.
I’m always in favour of trying something new, and I continue to surprise myself with how much it has improved my attitude towards food. You may find one way works better for you than the other for weight loss – combined with a healthy nutrition plan and quantity control, of course; but it’s also worth noticing any differences to your energy levels, digestion and overall health.