When They Tell You When to Eat

Mmm…snack time.

I finally got around to reading my July/August copy of Food & Nutrition Magazine, the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics publication that I enjoy immensely for the bite-sized tidbits of information (more corny dietitian humor. Corny! Ha!).

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.