In the world of nutrition, you hear everything. Carbs are good, carbs are bad; eat meat, don’t eat meat; three square meals a day, eat every 2 hours. With every decision, there is a philosophy (and industry) to support it. Snacking is among the list of nutrition habits that is commonly debated. How do you know if it is right for you?
The concept of “three meals a day” is actually evolutionarily new for humans. We come from a species of hunters and gatherers, eating when food was available and only enough to survive. Throughout our evolution, society, religion, and technology varied our eating patterns. For instance, dinner did not begin as an organized meal until the invention of artificial lighting. Breakfast started to make sense to industrial societies in order to power-up for a long day of factory hours where physical labor was demanding. These days, three meals a day is a part of modern society and culture in most developed nations. It is only natural that science begins to observe the health implications of different patterns of eating to help guide many to understand what will lead to better health.
Eating small, frequent meals throughout the day burst onto the diet scene as a way to increase metabolism, with the thought that the body will continue to burn calories as it digests food. In fact, several weight loss companies have designed their protocols around frequent calorie intake. Even fitness companies communicate the importance of eating before and after strenuous workouts (we tend to agree). Many follow the notion that small meals means the body is exposed to the positive benefits of the thermodynamic effect of food (meaning: our bodies continue to burn energy throughout the day through digestion which increases metabolism). Unfortunately, there no solid scientific evidence that this pattern of eating revs up the metabolism enough to have a significant effect on weight loss. It can, however, increase glycemic control in obese individuals which helps stabilize glucose levels, but it is not a weight loss slam-dunk.
While there is much debate around the effect frequent meals have on metabolism and weight loss, there is equal scrutiny around the benefits of spacing out mealtime. Some studies show an equal benefit of eating twice a day (and even lower BMIs) to 3-4 times a day, while other experts suggest eating less frequently can provide better hunger hormone signaling. Leaving time between meals has been shown to level hormones as well, which over time leads to better hunger signaling from the brain.
So…to snack or not to snack?
Reducing meal size and eating more frequently, or including small snacks in between meals, is still very much out for debate. It is important to remember that everyone is different; what works for some may not work for all. However, there are a few important and steady concepts that will remain true, regardless of whether you eat 6 times a day or twice: consistency and quality of calories. Typically, the body responds to food with the secretion of hormones that regulate appetite. Eating in a consistent manner daily can help keep hormone levels steady. Filling your plate (large or small) with the right balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) for your physiology from whole food sources can help avoid inflammation and excess salt and sugar commonly found in processed foods.
It may seem difficult to understand what is right for you when considering a nutrition plan. Expert guidance can help cut through the noise of the diet industry and put you on a path to better nutrition with your biology, preferences and goals in mind. Contact our team today to work with a Nutrition Coach to reestablish healthy eating habits for life.