The media is full of articles advising us to graze feed, to move away from eating three meals a day and instead have multiple small meals and snacks. The latest surveys now show that we are taking heed with 30% of us eating five or more times a day (1). Is this a good thing? are we better now better at balancing our energy needs and listening to our bodies? or does eating more often actually mean eating more?
On this the evidence is mixed. Almost all nutritionalists agree that the biggest cause of overeating is actually undereating. Going for long stretches between meals can cause blood sugar levels to drop and lead to hunger, speed eating and the likelihood of overindulgence. Research has definitively shown that skipping breakfast (2) or having a disappointing lunch (1) causes us to eat much more later in the day (3) and quite often this causes us to eat badly.
In the UK 32% of children leave home without eating breakfast (4) and 42% children aged 8-16 buy sweets on their way to school with a further 33% buying crisps and 28% buying fizzy drinks (5). Although fruit is the most popular snack in adults it is closely followed by crisps and chocolates (6) and 35% of office workers say they regularly eat biscuits, cake or chocolate in the afternoon (1).
However snacking does not need to be high-calorie / low nutrition and snacking can be a good way of adding more wholegrain, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds to your diet. The key is planning. It is fine to eat small amounts regularly during to day, or you can stick religiously to three meals a day providing this is what suits your lifestyle. The trick is to plan and so avoid letting your blood sugar dip, and to balance your snacks with the rest of your diet. It is also worth avoiding sugary foods, which have a high burn rate and wont give you any lasting satisfaction. Current advice is to eat carbohydrate snacks with a small amount of protein to give longer lasting energy. Susan Holts research on the satiation of common foods has thrown up some interesting facts and been used to develop good alternatives to common nibbles (7). I am not sure we are all going to start reaching for fish but perhaps popcorn instead of crisps, oranges instead of banana’s and steering clear of the danish pastries is doable.
(2) Mesas et al 2012. Selected eating behaviours and excess body weight: a systematic review. Obes Rev 13(2):106
(4) Sandercock et al 2010 Eur J Clin Nutr 64(10).1086.
(5) Food Standard Agency report 2001. Food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/
(7) Holt et al 1995 – A satiety index of common foods. Eur J Clin Nutr 49(9).675