Behind the headlines: snacking


Is eating little and often better or worse than eating 3 square meals a day? The Daily Mail’s article in Health on April 7th appeared to side with the snacking concept judging by the layout of the piece. The truth is, eating little and often or eating three square meals a day makes little difference.

The article looks at the argument presented by two professors of nutrition: Professor Haslam of the National Obesity Forum, and Professor Lean of Glasgow University.  Prof. Haslam, according to the article, suggests that eating plenty of vegetables little and often and  throughout the day ensures that your metabolic system is steadily stimulated and provides a continuous supply of nutrients to your body.

Prof. Lean, however, states that obesity figures have escalated partly due to snacking on manufactured foods that are mostly high in calories, especially from fat and sugar…they lead to … over-consumption.

It’s difficult to understand how these interviews were conducted, because it looks very much like the Daily Mail have deliberately mislead the people they were talking to. Professor Lean, I am almost certain, would not have made those comments had he known that the article was about consuming vegetables! Similarly, Prof Haslam is unlikely to condone the snacking of high calorie foods, such as biscuits and cakes!

Further down the article, a rather bizarre comparison was made: The NHS says that people need to snack between meals…but recommends fruit and vegetables rather than crisps and chocolate. Other experts differ…finding that snacking, especially on fatty and  high sugar foods, is worse for the liver.

So basically they don’t differ, they agree? Snacking on high calorie foods is bad.

So let’s just look at the point the article (I think) was trying to make, and that’s eating little and often is better than three meals a day. And let’s stick to this one fact: eating high calorie foods is bad, it leads to weight gain.

Eating behaviour is highly complex. The problem with snacking is that you cannot reliably determine how much food you consume during the day, some studies suggest that grazing leads to greater calorie consumption than planning and regulating your meals, particularly if you graze impulsively (1, 2, 3).

Grazing on “healthy foods” may not be practical, and very few people can or want to snack on fruit or vegetables.

Other studies suggest that where you eat, and how regular the pattern of eating may play a role- not eating in front of the TV and having a regular eating pattern is more likely to influence your weight (4).

In fact, a recent study that looked at multiple studies done over the past five years found that not only planning your meals was important, but decided what and when to eat at particularly times had an impact upon your overall weight.

They found that eating a larger breakfast containing protein often meant that you ate a smaller lunch and snacked less often. Similarly, concentrating carbohydrates in the evening, after a time, shifts the hormonal balance that regulates appetite – creating a situation that encourages satiety during the day (5).

The bottom line is, there is no robust evidence yet to suggest whether eating regular and timed meals over grazing throughout the day has any real benefit on weight control (6).

We’re all so different, and you’re better doing whatever works for you. There is nothing wrong with eating little and often if that’s what you prefer. Sticking to low calorie, high fibre options like fruit and vegetable snacks is a great idea if you like it.

But having three square meals a day with limited snacking in between, may also work too. Not everyone likes eating constantly.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Says who? And on what authority? There’s very little in the science literature to support that, in fact there’s growing evidence that skipping breakfast and lengthening the time that you fast between your last meal of the day before and the first meal today may have metabolic benefits (7).

It’s important that you work with your own capabilities, because any method of stabilising weight has to work with your lifestyle, your preferences and thus what you’re able to stick to.

So what do you think?

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