‘Grazing was the way our body was designed to eat,’ says nutritionist Antony Haynes. ‘Large meals burden the digestive system, often causing bloating and lowered energy while the body struggles to digest them. By eating smaller meals you prevent this, and the body functions more efficiently throughout the day.’ When we eat a big meal, the sugar level in our blood rises, but once that meal is digested that blood sugar level falls, taking your energy and mood with it.
The problem is, the bigger the meal, the bigger the crash – and the higher your need for sugary snacks to refuel your body. The regular influx of food with a little-and-often approach keeps your energy level stable and makes it easier for you to cope with everything you have to do in a day,’ says nutritionist Natalie Savona.
And it’s not just energy and sugar levels that stay stable. According to the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition unit, measurements of fatty acids in the blood also remain stable when you eat little and often. This is good news because peaks and troughs in these have been shown to increase risk of heart disease.
Finally, done properly, the little-and-often approach makes it easier to get all the nutrients you need. On average, the three-meals-a-day eater relies on the same six to seven foodstuffs – whereas, for optimum health, doctors say we should be aiming for 16 different types over two or three days.
‘When we studied eating patterns, we found that regular grazers actually had healthier diets than those eating the traditional three square meals a day approach,’ says Dr Sandra Drummond from Queen Margaret’s University College in Edinburgh.
‘They ate less fat, more carbohydrates and more fruit and vegetables. Other studies have found grazers to have higher levels of vitamin C and other nutrients – they also tend to have lower levels of body fat. Natalie Savona says: ‘The problem is that people see the word “snackî and think chocolate or crisps. But these high-fat, high-sugar foods contain little or no nutrients and are loaded with calories, boosting risk of weight gain.’
So what should you be doing to make your snack attacks work for you?
The most important thing is to set yourself what the Americans call a calorie salary. ‘Snacking works against people when they add the extra food on top of their normal daily intake – rather than adjusting portion sizes accordingly,’ says Dr Drummond.
‘You’re not trying to live out of wrappers,’ says Antony Haynes. ‘That’s when the snacking approach fails. Instead, you should ensure that every time you eat, the food is low in fat and ideally freshly prepared. You need lots of fruit and vegetables and, to maximise effects, you should also ensure that whenever you eat carbohydrates you combine them with a little protein because this stabilises blood sugar further.’
If this is too hard at first – it takes a while to adjust mentally to smaller portions, plus getting used to preparing food and stopping to eat more often – then take the split meal approach. If you normally have toast, cereal and fruit for breakfast, have the cereal first, the toast and fruit an hour later.
At lunchtime, eat half your sandwich with a piece of fruit, then have the other half an hour later with some soup or a small salad; eat a smaller dinner than normal then have more fruit, a yoghurt or a small sandwich an hour later.
Sit down with your family, talk about the day and enjoy the flavours of the food. All that’s different is how much is on your plate not how much you should enjoy it.’
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