Are we snacking too much?
A huge 95 per cent of us nibble between meals, with two-thirds snacking at least twice a day. But experts are still divided on the merits of grazing.
So – should your mantra be ‘little and often’ or ‘three square meals’? With our #snackhappy campaign in full swing, it’s time to find out. Two experts weigh in from opposing sides of the debate.
YES, says nutrition consultant Lisa Blair
‘When I was studying, eating three meals and two snacks was considered the gold standard of healthy eating, but I’ve changed my view. I believe in the metabolic balance approach, which encourages eating three meals and no snacks, with a five-hour gap between meals. As long as each meal is balanced, that’s a good way to eat for a lot of people.
‘I also encourage a 14-hour gap between dinner and breakfast, or even 16 hours, which can mean going from three meals to two. Whenever you eat, you elicit a glucose response, and your body pumps out insulin. That switches off your ability to burn fat, so extending the “overnight fast” gives your body an opportunity to improve fat burning. Insulin is also an inflammatory hormone, and inflammation is linked to many poor health outcomes.
‘Many people never feel hungry; they eat because they’re bored, stressed, in need of a treat or a break. There’s also been a decline in formal eating patterns, so people graze here and there, without a proper lunch or dinner. I see people with almost perfect meals, who eat the equivalent of another two or three mini meals. One client had carrot sticks and houmous; great except it was an entire pot. I always recommend nuts and seeds, but a small handful, rather than mindlessly dipping into a bag. We also lead sedentary lives; as a nation of desk jockeys, our energy needs are pretty low.
‘If you start to feel hungry, wait 10 to 15 minutes to see if you really are. On a scale of one to 10, eat around a seven. Don’t eat breakfast at 7am out of habit, wait until your body tells you it’s ready. If your meals are balanced, with protein, not too many white starches, fibre and healthy fats, you can keep going. Then eat when your tummy rumbles, not when your work gets tricky!’
NO, says dietician and nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker
‘I recommend three balanced meals and two snacks a day. You shouldn’t constantly graze, because whenever you eat, glucose is released into the bloodstream, followed by insulin and you don’t want insulin constantly being pumped into your body. But three meals and two snacks won’t do that if they’re balanced.
‘Research has shown having regular mealtimes makes people avoid fast food and sugary drinks and eat more fruit and veg, whereas eating on the run leads to less healthy choices. Having a routine provides a feel-good element, too; you know you’re eating well, you feel good so you don’t crave rubbish. The body can cope with a bit of hunger, but it’s a powerful physiological response that might override other things, so it can be distracting.
‘So, it’s about having the right snacks. There’s a reason we say “don’t food shop when you’re hungry”; you’re more likely to fill your trolley with rubbish. You need to be a bit hungry, but too hungry and you lose the energy and will to make good choices. It’s linked to the homeostatic and hedonic pathways in the body: the first controls energy balance and tells you to eat when your energy stores are depleted; the second, or reward-based, system overrides this when you’re too hungry. That encourages you to seek out calorific, quick-fix foods. It’s a plausible explanation for why people who skip breakfast are often overweight; they wait too long to eat, then reach for chocolate, crisps or biscuits, which won’t satisfy them so keep repeating the same mistake.
‘For women, in particular, eating regularly is a way to deliver nutrients. Physiologically, we have a requirement for iron, calcium and magnesium; by starving yourself and succumbing to rubbish, you’ll miss out. Also, we’re encouraging people to eat 10 portions of fruit and veg a day; that’s hard to achieve if you don’t snack.’
What do you think? Share your views with us on Twitter @healthymag using the hashtag #snackhappy