When you’re a dietitian, everyone wants to tell you their theories on what they think is the best diet (one of my nutrition instructors told the class this is why she won’t tell people what she does for a living at parties. Don’t I know it!). Often someone will say to me, “I’ve heard that eating (5, 7, 9, the number varies) small meals a day is better than eating three.” So it was with great interest that I read the article “What Science Says About Snacking.” Well, what do you think? Three squares or nine mini-meals a day?
Turns out the evidence supports…both. Huh!? So says the article:
“Snacking may help control appetite, or it may contribute to recreational eating and excess calories. Research supports both opposing views. Beginning in the 1960s, studies noted that people who ate the fewest number of times during the day had the greatest amount of excess body weight, leading many health professionals to recommend frequent eating as a weight-loss tool. More recently, researchers have challenged the idea that eating frequently aids weight control…[Studies] suggested that the more often someone ate, the higher his or her body mass index would be.”
The article sited several different studies which supported both sides of the argument. One study compared men who ate identical diets as either three square meals a day or as 17 daily “nibbles.” The nibblers had better cholesterol at the end of the study – but would you want to eat 17 times during the day?! You’d better have a very flexible job if you decide to go this route!
Ultimately, the article admitted, “Both the Evidence Analysis Library of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and experts at a 2009 symposium on eating frequency and energy balance concluded that scientific evidence pointing to an ideal eating frequency for weight control doesn’t exist at this time” (emphasis mine).
Not surprisingly, most of the studies looked at the effects of snacking or not snacking on weight, likely because many researchers remain hooked on the idea that weight=health. We know this is not true and there is ample evidence supporting this. But what about the effects of snacking on other metabolic parameters? The evidence is just as inconclusive. In the end, the article said, “While there is considerable interest in eating frequency, there is no consensus regarding an ideal pattern.”
Many diet plans have touted the effects on metabolism of many vs fewer meals a day, but once again,
“Although some dieters snack to boost their metabolic rates, research suggests these efforts are in vain. Studies that examine data for up to 48 hours after eating find that the jump in metabolic rate or the thermic effect of food is not dependent on meal frequency. Rather, overall metabolic rate is similar when a specific amount of food is eaten during few or many occasions.”
So even your metabolism doesn’t care if you snack or not.
How many diets have advised ideal meal patterns over the years as part of their foolproof weight loss schemes? More than I can count. And in the end, since science can’t agree, the best meal pattern is probably the one that you like the most – not for health reasons, but because it suits your life and appetite. Letting others dictate how often you should eat isn’t a guaranteed path to health or weight loss and might even be destructive to your body’s own intuitive internal regulation.
When I’m at work (and not on my own natural schedule), I tend to need snacks to quell hunger between meals because I eat breakfast earlier than I normally would. But at home, when I’m truly eating according to my own natural rhythms (waking up later, eating breakfast later, lunch a bit earlier, and dinner at my usual 7 pm), I find I don’t need snacks at all. So both methods work for me depending on my situation.
If you aren’t already in tune with your hunger and satiety signals, it’s worth it to invest some time in getting to know them well. Truly recognizing these cues from a weight-neutral perspective will help you best determine the eating pattern that is right for you. And don’t let the latest weight loss gurus tell you otherwise.
I occasionally have to work weekends as part of my job and I don’t like it. I don’t like taking a weekend day away from my family time and it throws my general mojo way out of whack, so that I am grumpy for days after. But I knew this was part of the job, my co-workers have to do it too and I accepted it when I took the job, so for as long as I do the job, I suck it up.
The most Sunday I had to work, I was restless and impatient – it was hot and I really wanted to be at the beach instead. I was alone in my office (through the week I have fun officemates) when I much prefer company. There was a little bag of chocolate truffles in the office that we have all been pecking at for weeks, and I always have chocolate in my desk. Can you tell I am chocolate insecure and I must be surrounded by it at all times?! This does not normally lead to me overeating chocolate – it has the opposite effect, actually. I only eat small amounts when I truly want it.
But this particular day in the office, I had not brought a hearty enough lunch (I left the “bread” part of the “tomato and bread” soup at home), I didn’t have enough filling snacks (yogurt is a staple) AND I was deadly bored and wanted desperately to run away from my desk but I couldn’t. So what did I do? I made a trip to the chocolate bag. And then another. And then into my desk for some Ghirardelli chocolate. Suddenly I stopped and said, “Okay, what’s happening here? I’m not that hungry, although lunch definitely didn’t leave me satisfied…but I don’t really feel like eating all this chocolate.” I was comfort eating – something I actually rarely do these days (but something I did A LOT of when I was a dieter). And truly, there was not a lot I could do to provide any other kind of comfort for myself – I could not leave work, I did not have enough time to go for a walk…eating seemed to be it. However, after I named the behavior, I suddenly no longer needed the chocolate. What I really wanted was some protein – and I resolved to have that for dinner (sadly, we tried a new place for dinner and it wasn’t that good, but at least I had the chicken I was craving).
Comfort eating happens sometimes. Sometimes it’s the only way we have to care for ourselves. And if it really only happens once in a while, it’s no big deal. As I’ve mentioned before, a day of “off the rails” eating isn’t going to destroy the goodness of an overall healthy, “normal” eating pattern. If this is happening a lot more (weekly, or even daily), then it’s time to look at what you are really craving. Are you eating to stuff down unpleasant feelings? Are you eating to solve problems that have nothing to do with food? Are you eating because you are bored and it’s just there (I was told once by a psychologist that boredom is not a feeling and is usually masking other feelings)? In any case, frequently, mindlessly eating for reasons other than hunger need to be investigated. As always, be curious, not judgmental, with yourself and your feelings.
This is part of self-care. We need to take care of ourselves in all ways, not just with eating or exercise. Our mental well-being is, in my opinion, the biggest part of our overall health. Take time to get to know the inner workings of your mind and feelings and it will be time well invested.
I know why I was so bored and restless that day – I have some vacation coming up and I was anxious for it to get going. Not to mention I was feeling a little burned out, as we humans can get! I didn’t freak out about my day of weird eating and things returned to normal pretty quickly.
So, in the spirit of self-care, for my vacation this week I will be going dark on the internet – I’m aiming for total media deprivation! (Thank goodness for timed blog posts!) So forgive me, my lovely readers, if I don’t get back to your awesome comments right away…or at all this week. I’ll be taking care of myself at the beach while I think of you all!
Thanks you to Chelsey from Diaries of a Recovering Diary Addict for nominating me for a Liebster Award! I have really enjoyed Chelsey’s blog ever since I found it a little while back – I love her personal stories around diet recovery and budgeting and planning. I didn’t even know what this award was, but a quickie internet search revealed that this is an award given from one blogger to another, usually someone with under 500 followers, to encourage support and discovery of new blogs.
Here are the rules (which, based on my search, seem to be pretty flexible):
Thank the blogger who nominated you with a link back to his/her blog.
Nominate 5 – 11 bloggers with fewer than 500 followers.
Answer the questions from the blogger who nominated you.
Create 11 questions for your nominees.
I would like to nominate:
Aaron Flores, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist aka the Balance Variety and Moderation RDN – Aaron is an incredible teacher of Intuitive Eating and blogs about body acceptance and images issues as well. I love this thoughtful posts on everything from childhood obesity to fat shaming.
Thomas Ngo of The More You Ngo – Thomas was a classmate of mine and I enjoy his blog as much as I enjoyed his witty sense of humor back when we were in school together. He is a dietitian and personal trainer and is HAES and intuitive eating-friendly – not a combination that is easy to find! Plus he says hilarious things like “Dr. Oz is a liarface” and “What happens when you cut sugar out of your diet? You die.” Rock on, Thomas!
Joanne Arena MS, RD – I always enjoy Joanne’s “voice of reason” when it comes to eating and nutrition. She embraces HAES and intuitive eating and writes with a great, approachable voice and cuts through all the BS around nutrition that’s out there! I always look forward to what she has to say.
Fuel For Freedom – I recently stumbled on this blog and I love its mission to combat eating disorders and the harmful messages we are fed by the media every day. I am looking forward to reading more!
I’m going to break the rules a little and only nominate these four. I wish I had more time for blog reading – alas, alack, blog writing beckons!
Here are my answers to Chelsea’s questions:
What is your favorite food?
Pizza! Without a doubt.
What is something you have always wanted to try?
Hm…learn to play at least one song on the guitar. I live with a guitar player, so you’d think this would be easy to make happen. Not so much!
What is your favorite hobby?
Right now it’s blog writing. But I’ve also just picked up sewing again recently – can’t wait to make some new drapes.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
When people say “It’s just calories in/calories out!” ARGH!
Where are you from?
Canada! But I’ve lived in California for 13 years now. I still miss Toronto quite a bit – but not the weather!
Where is your dream vacation?
I’ve already been there, but I think I’d love to go back to Belize again. I’ve never been anywhere so relaxing in my life, and by now I’ve traveled to a few places. Amaaazing snorkeling and wonderful people.
What is the last picture you took with your phone?
Don’t laugh, but I don’t own a *real* smartphone (and don’t have a data plan), so I don’t take many pictures and I definitely don’t do any uploading…I did take a pretty fuzzy photo of some recording equipment I just bought for a super-secret-but-upcoming project!!
What food do you hate the most?
Peas. Blech. And also quinoa. I wish people would quit telling me, “Oh, but I have a recipe for quinoa that you will love!” I will not. The only way I could like quinoa less is if you put peas in it.
If you had to choose to live without one of your five senses, which one would you give up?
Eeeeeee…tough one…I can’t say “none” can I? Ok, I guess hearing. I cringe just saying that, but I think I’d still be able to live (not without difficulty) without hearing. And I’d learn the superpower of lip-reading and then eavesdrop on people on first dates in restaurants. I was going to say touch but then I imagined how many times I’d burn myself on the stove…
If you were stranded in jungle somewhere and could only bring one item, what would it be?
My camping water filter…I’m nothing if not practical.
If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would buy?
A house with a few acres somewhere quiet. Then I’d plant a garden!
Here are my questions for my fellow nominees (again, I’m going to break the rules and not ask 11 questions):
What led you to a non-diet/HAES/intuitive-eating approach?
What’s the last book you read?
What’s your favorite, most fun physical activity that you do?
What’s your favorite TV show?
What’s the last movie you saw?
What’s your favorite thing about blogging?
Where would you like to travel to next?
There, seven rhymes with eleven, so seven questions are enough. Thank you to all the bloggers I nominated for writing excellent, insightful posts about NOT DIETING! You are making the world a better place!
Someone left a message on my Facebook page along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing because I deleted it toute suite) “This comment probably won’t be appreciated here [correct!] but this page seems like a big excuse for people to be overindulgent and lazy. You don’t have to do crazy fad diets or anything but people should try to eat better and be the best they can be.” It was left by a gentleman who was very muscled and shirtless (and notably, headless) in his FB photo, so based on that and the general negative tone of his comment, I’m guessing he disapproved of my message to love our bodies as they are through a Health At Every Size® approach.
I deleted the comment because of the negative, accusatory tone – I intend for my Facebook page and blog to be safe, positive spaces for people practicing HAES®, body positivity and Intuitive Eating. People of size, people who have suffered from eating disorders, even people with “normal size” bodies who want to step away from dieting – we all hear enough pro-diet, negative body talk in the world every day. I don’t owe anyone a platform for their thoughts, and there are plenty of places on the internet where those kinds of comments will be appreciated. But one thing I do want to address here is the particular sentiment of “People should try to be the best they can be.”
First of all, while I would love to encourage people to be the best they can be, the word “should” is troublesome because who are any of us to tell anyone what they should do? People can do what they want and they don’t need anyone’s permission. But say some folks decide they want to be “the best they can be” (if they feel they aren’t currently at their best)? Great! Does that necessarily have to mean our bodies??
Maybe my commenter’s version, based on what he said and how he’s choosing the represent himself in his online persona, involves doing what it takes to have a body shaped similar to his: lean, large, muscled. Perhaps his body is the masterpiece of his life and that is his idea of being his “best.” That is absolutely a-okay because that’s what he wants. That works for him.
But does that mean improving one’s body is the universal meaning of “be the best you can be?” Not for me, it isn’t. I tried for many years to make my body the masterpiece of my life, and all it ever did was leave me unhappy. Even with all the societal approval that I “won” with my acceptably-small-sized body, I was simultaneously profoundly unhappy with my body and fearful that I would lose what I had created. My masterpiece left me wanting so much more out of life, not the least of which was peace of mind.
I realized my body did not have to be the culmination of my life’s work, that there were other things I could be “my best” at – like loving myself without judgement and then learning how to stop judging others for the thing I had agonized over in myself.
I learned I could learn things – like chemistry! – that I never thought I could when I was so busy creating my “best” body. I learned that when I did learn new things – microbiology, ho! – I felt much better about myself than when I had dutifully eaten like a dieting all-star all week. Sadly, I could have earned two PhDs for all the unhappy time I had spent thinking about ways to maintain my societally correct body.
The “best” me can have vigorous conversations about politics, science, pop culture, sociology, religion, fashion – things that don’t even involve my profession, nutrition (but I like talking about that, too) or my body (a topic which, frankly, bores me). The “best” me want to read books that bring me a new understanding of the world. And – unlike my body-shaping efforts of years past – doing these things actually makes me happy!
I learned that “the best I can be” is different for everyone, and that there was a better “best” inside of me than out. You get to choose what your best is, and it will involve your body, whether you want to conquer a sport or have a better understanding of constitutional law or become an ace quilter.
So I’m sorry I couldn’t let your post roam free on my Facebook page, dear commenter, but my followers don’t deserve to be shamed for choosing different paths to the best they can be.
*edited from original to add a link I had forgotten to add!
I have to thank a commenter in an Intuitive Eating discussion group I belong to for the catchy title of this post. It was in response to another poster who had said he felt he was eating too much and generally eating “everything.” It got me thinking about the ways that this could easily happen when we are in the early stages of learning to give up dieting and eat intuitively.
For those of us who have dieted, Intuitive Eating can feel like a lifesaver once we get over the fear of trusting our own bodies. When we start to tune into our internal cues of hunger and satiety and eat accordingly, we can feel an immense sense of relief and freedom from restrictive eating.
But what happens when we start to become just as restrictive with IE as we were when we dieted? When “eat when you’re hungry” (a guideline) becomes “eat ONLY when you are hungry” (a rule)? When “stop when you’re no longer hungry” becomes so rigid that you are left craving more? That’s when Intuitive Eating has become a rule, not a tool, and you’re in danger of embarking on yet another diet.
We eat for many reasons: primarily stomach hunger, but also sometimes for mouth hunger, for celebratory reasons, because you won’t be able to eat later, for comfort, and sometimes just because it is there. Having a strict control rule such as “I can only eat when my stomach feels a certain level of hunger” can feel restrictive, and restriction is frequently associated with binge-eating behaviors (See the evidence here). Having permission to eat for all the other reasons, while mostly aiming for stomach hunger, creates a safe space for eating where you are in charge (as opposed to in control).
Same for fullness/satiety. Most of the time, we are listening for the “not hungry” cue to tell us when to stop eating. But occasional overeating is normal – say, on special occasions, like a holiday meal, or when a particular meals tastes especially wonderful (hello pizza!). Feeling like we have permission to overeat if we want to gives us – not “the rule” – the decision making power over what and how much we eat.
Once we’re back in Rule Land, it’s easy to feel confined to healthy, moderate eating – and it becomes easy to want to rebel against it too. That’s when we might start feeling like we’ve gone off the rails, eating without listening to internal cues, and trying to satisfy the psychological deficits restriction creates.
When I learned to eat intuitively, I found that I still had a hard time regulating myself with pizza (did I mention this is my favorite food!?). As I honed in on my internal eating cues, I found I was able to recognize satiety after one slice most of the time. However, there were times when I wanted more just because it tasted especially wonderful (because not all pizzas are created equal, and sometimes it just is better), but I felt guilty that I was eating past my satiety. That resulted in feeling like I was restricted – and then I ate even more. Eventually I realized that I could eat just as much as I wanted, which sometimes meant a little, and other times meant more – and the freedom allowed me to stop overeating to discomfort on this food. My significant other (a natural intuitive eater) makes it his business to occasionally overeat on pizza just because he likes it so much. Remember that if we listen to our body’s cues most of the time, an occasional indulgent eating episode won’t disrupt our weight regulation.
Following our hunger and satiety cues are best thought of as guidelines that will help us make good eating decisions in the moment. Becoming obsessive with these guidelines can make us feel cheated. Sometimes you’re not all that hungry for that birthday cupcake (especially right after the delicious birthday meal) but you want it anyway because it’s a celebration – and, hey, how often do you have cupcakes anyway? (for me: not nearly often enough!)
So remember, let Intuitive Eating be your tool to the best eating for you – not a rule that puts you on another diet.
The concept of bodies changing throughout a lifetime really does belong under the category of No Shit, Sherlock. We all understand this logically and intellectually, and most of us probably aren’t going around saying, “I’m going to have this fantastic 27 year old body for the rest of my life!” And yet, over the years I’ve heard many women AND men bemoan their changing bodies once they start to get older. “My [belly, hips, thighs, butt, arms] are getting [bigger, wobbly, saggy, poochy] – and they NEVER used to do THAT!” To be fair, I was once included in this group of complainers that I like to call everybody.
We live in a time that is positively phobic about aging (and maybe there was never a time where this wasn’t true for women, I honestly don’t know). Women are encouraged to “fight” the “signs of age” and now even men are increasingly expected to retain the taut physique of their youth. But bodies do change over the course of a lifetime. So why are we so damn freaked out when it actually happens?
Recently a gorgeous friend of mine lamented that all her pants had become too tight and she didn’t want to buy new ones. She’s a very healthy eater and regular exerciser, but she had just turned 30, so maybe things are starting to…shift. I recalled that right around the time I turned 32, my body, which had maintained its relative thinness for 9 years, also began to change. While my weight remained the same, there was some…sagging. Some pooching about the waist. Some poufing of the hips. I can guarantee you no one else noticed this but me. That’s okay, I noticed it enough for everyone. I decided to “fix” this “problem” of my maturing body with more dieting, more exercise and much more misery. You know how the rest of the story goes.
Now that I’ve had time to contemplate the ridiculous rules of the world, I haven’t got a clue why we are so determined to stave off age; after all, I was a mess in my 20s and much of my 30s (a fun mess, but a mess nonetheless), I struggled professionally in unsatisfying jobs, and in general nobody seemed to be rewarding me for my dewy youth. I have learned so much about becoming a better human in the past 20 years that I wouldn’t trade all my hard-won self-confidence and knowledge for a smaller waist or less saggy face. Those things wouldn’t mean I hadn’t gotten older anyway.
After I gained back all of my weight, I weighed as much as I did when I was 22 (before dieting). But I’m 44 now and my body is much different. I’m more muscular in some areas (probably from exercising) but my stomach is a fatter and for the first time in my life I have hips. Some of the changes in body composition might be from dieting (one theory is that we lose muscle mass which is then replaced with fat, a much better energy storage unit), but I suspect a lot of it is related to aging as well. The number-one complaint from my beloved middle-aged-lady friends is about their stomachs. Women’s stomachs get fatter over time because as estrogen production from the ovaries decreases, fat migrates to the stomach. The reason for this isn’t abundantly clear, but it may be because belly fat produces estrogen. If I had to guess, increasing belly fat after menopause most likely has a protective effect, but currently our fatphobic society focuses only on how to get rid of it (don’t do an internet search on this topic if you want to save your sanity points).
Back to my friend and her dilemma. I asked her, “So what will you do about your tight pants?”
“I’m going to try to exercise more,” she said.
“And if that doesn’t work?”
She paused and then sighed a little. “I guess I’ll have to buy new pants.”
And that’s the moral of the story: our bodies are going to change, and eventually you are going to have to buy new pants. You can do all sorts of crazy things to manipulate your body, or you can just buy some new pants, learn to appreciate all your body has done for you, and then work on the parts of you that really do get better with age: achieving wisdom, intelligence, kindness and happiness.