How often should we eat?
I came across an interesting study late last year, which looked at the effect of eating frequency on folk of ‘normal weight’, or who had lost fat and were maintaining that fat loss, or were ‘overweight’. The number of meals eaten in the day was essentially the same across the groups – the typical ‘3 squares’.
However, for snacks it was different:
Overall, those of normal weight and those who had lost weight ate more snacks than those deemed overweight.
In other words, in this study, increased eating frequency was associated with lower weight.
The authors of this study make the conclusion that eating three meals a day with two snacks in between ‘may be important in weight loss maintenance.’
The suggestion from this study is that eating more frequent can help with fat loss and weight control. This may be the case but this study most certainly does not prove that. That’s because it’s epidemiological (ie based on self reporting and in the field not in controlled lab conditions) in nature, and can only tell us that increased frequency of eating is associated with lower weight.
The increased snacking may not have caused the lower weight. It might also be that fatter individuals are more likely to forgo snacks because they believe this will help them lose weight or reduce the risk of weight gain.
However, having said that, I find personally, that some well-timed snacking on the right sort of food can make a huge difference to someone’s attempts to eat healthily and lose fat or maintain a healthy weight.
For some people the time that passes between meals is just too long.
This is usually more of a problem between lunch and dinner than between breakfast and lunch. Some people can eat lunch at 12.30 and not be able to sit down to their evening meal until 8.00 or later. By this time hunger can be at such a level that it makes healthy eating almost impossible, and junk fod a certainty if not a necessity!!
Starchy carbs such as bread, pasta and rice as well a processed ‘no preparation required’ foods are normally the order of the day at this point, and are often preceded by some unhealthy snacking (e.g. biscuits / sweets / potato chips) and then topped of with a none-too-healthy dessert.
Also, out of control hunger can drive people to drink more alcohol than they normally would.
All of these issues can usually be avoided by having a suitable snack in the late afternoon. The snack of choice? For me it is nuts or if you are allergic to nuts – an apple with a slice of cheddar cheese.
Because both of these snacks are reasonably protein-rich and give a strong feeling of fullness they suppress your appetite in contrast to fruit alone which tends not to do the job nearly as well. And all of the above are vastly superior to the afternoon sugar rush from a chocolate bar or cake…
Snacking between meals is not a ‘must-do’ – if you can go from meal to meal without your cravings for food or your appetite getting out of control then snacking is unlikely to add much to your fat loss efforts.
However a lot of reasearch shows (and I am a proponent of this thinking myself) that eating 5 or 6 times a day with protein at every meal keeps your metabolism running faster, your insulin release lower and overall assists in fat loss.
Also, keep in mind that how often you eat on each day can vary according to whether or not you’ve been working out, how hard you’ve worked out, the temperature, your sleep quality and the stress you may or may not beunder in your life.
Appetite like much else is variable. – some days you may just need more food or more frequent eating than others.
So for most people this means eating 2 or 3 meals a day with 1-2 snacks a day.
There are no hard and fast rules.
The important thing is to eat enough of the right foods, frequently enough to avoid getting ravenously hungry, and to eat the right foods that support your fat loss efforts. This means proteins and vegetables and fruits and nuts – low or unprocessed foods.
Eating like this is what makes healthy eating (and fat loss for that matter) easy and sustainable.
See you next week.
1. Bachman JL, et al. Eating frequency is higher in weight loss maintainers and normal-weight individuals than in overweight individuals. J Am Diet Asso 2011;111(11):1730-1734