Some people are naturally snackers, always with a granola bar or apple close by, while others can go hours without thinking about food. Nutritionists and researchers continue to argue about the “healthiest” way to eat: is it best to consume many small meals throughout the day or only two or three larger ones? We tackle both sides of the argument below.
The main reason that frequent grazing or snacking gained popularity was because of claims that it could curb appetite and speed up metabolism. The University of Massachusetts Medical School found that people who ate more than three times a day were at a lower risk for obesity and that skipping breakfast was correlated with an increased prevalence of obesity. This study, among others, indicates that the best path towards maintaining a healthy weight is to eat frequent meals throughout the day.
Some pro-snackers also say that a small snack between meals helps them steer away from overeating during actual meals, leading to fewer daily calories consumed overall. Of course, eating frequently can also inadvertently lead to more calories eaten, so it’s important to honor the food you eat between meals as having the same nutrients and calories as your regular meals.
Snacking also provides an additional way to sneak in vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients you might miss during the day. Snacks can also provide a boost of extra power, helping you get through a particularly busy day of meetings or energizing you before a workout.
Those who prefer to eat two or three meals during the day say that snacking can train your body to become hungry more frequently as it becomes used to being fed every two or three hours. A study done on those with type 2 diabetes found that subjects who ate just breakfast and lunch decreased their BMI by 1.23 points while those who ate six small meals per day lost an average of 0.82 points. Both groups ate the same number of calories and macronutrients. The results of this study show that fewer meals might be a biologically-based way to lose weight, and not just a mind trick you can play on yourself to consume fewer calories.
Additionally, a small study found that snacking at night time can prevent fat breakdown and increase the obesity risk for young women, while another found that mice who only ate during an 8-hour feeding period became leaner and healthier than mice that casually grazed whenever they pleased. Both studies suggest that timing of your meals, and not just the frequency, play an important role in weight management.
As you can see, there will always be studies and findings pointing us in different directions. The most important next steps you can take when synthesizing the above information is to recognize which methods resonate with you. We all possess a bio-individuality that makes generalizations and mass studies difficult to apply to each person. Try different methods, see what works, and don’t forget to listen to your body.