It used to be that we ate three meals per day. Then, health experts (presumably the same ones who told us fat was bad and got us started on sugar highs and lows) told us we needed to eat at least 6 times per day. So we did.
Now it seems we’re putting something caloric in our system almost every waking hour.
Breakfast within an hour of waking. Finishing the kids’ breakfast or grabbing a calorie-bomb latte on the way to work. “Oh, are those bagels / donuts / goodies someone brought; yes, I’ll have one please.” Then lunch time. An hour later, that mid-afternoon snack you brought, because you’re supposed to eat at least 4-6 times per day. That co-worker has candy on her desk, why not. Time to head home. Since dinner isn’t ready you have a small snack, ‘just to tide you over’ or because the kids are hungry. Dinner is served. After dinner, while watching TV, those commercials get you and you find the chips or the cookies in the pantry or the last slice of cake. Finally, it’s bedtime and a glass of milk is good for sleep.
With that kind of schedule, no matter how small the portions have been, there’s no way to maintain healthy blood sugar levels or keep calories in check. In effect, you’ve just eaten all.day.long.
Your body is constantly working to pump out insulin, to produce digestive enzymes, to deal with all the stuff that’s going into your body. When does it have time to rest, repair, restore, and clear out residues and wastes? When do your insulin receptors have time to reset? When does your body have time or the need to tap into glucose stores and fat stores?
Frankly, it doesn’t.
This scenario may explain feeling lethargic, congested, brain foggy, on an energy and blood sugar roller coaster, as well as the weight gain and rising blood sugar.
As a health coach, I work with people to not only lose weight, but to improve their overall health. And one way to address a lot of that at once is to cut out the snacking.
Here are 5 reasons why I try to get people to STOP the frequent snacking and opt for fewer meals per day.
1. Blood Sugar and Insulin
When eating meals balanced in protein, fats, and slow-acting carbs there’s no reason to eat every couple hours–blood sugar will be stable and sustained, and satiety will be maintained.
Snacks, by contrast, tend to be less balanced in macronutrients. Most snacks tend to be all sugar (or occasionally all fat). Think chips, cookies, snack bars, crackers, juices, shakes, smoothies, or a piece of fruit. Snacks, by their very nature, are likely to start the blood sugar roller coaster sending you searching for more carbs very soon.
If you’re eating quick-carb foods, you end up needing to eat every couple of hours to recover from the sugar and energy crash. Then you eat more sweet things to boost blood sugar back up. It’s a Catch-22. (The chart below shows insulin levels in response to the 3 types of macronutrients.)
Long-term this becomes more problematic: frequently eating carb-heavy snacks increases insulin resistance as your body just can’t deal with the constant influx of sugar and resulting production of insulin. It becomes a trajectory toward overall blood sugar dysregulation.
By contrast, eating fewer times per day relieves the burden on the insulin receptors, helping them stay fresh and vigourous. Fewer meals (with balanced macronutrients) also means your body does the work to maintain blood sugar levels by releasing glucose from the muscles and liver; as a result, you actually have more stable energy and blood sugar. And this is much better for preventing diabetes and managing weight.
2. Excess Calories
Eating more frequently means higher likelihood of consuming excess calories because most of us can only consume a certain amount in a given meal. When eating every couple of hours it’s much easier to eat more calories in a single day. And, scarily, to not realize how many calories we’re consuming.
By contrast, when sitting down to eat a proper meal, we can be conscious of portion sizes as well as hunger and satiety signals. ‘Snacking’ usually implies standing up, on-the-go, whatever’s available, with little recognition how much we should eat or have eaten.
Some ‘snacks’ can even pack more calories than an entire meal. If, as a woman who doesn’t exercise, you’re eating 3 x 500 calorie meals PLUS 2 x 600 calorie ‘snacks’ (even liquid ‘snacks’), that’s 2700 calories–more than most men need on a daily basis.
Significantly and repeatedly exceeding your daily calories causes weight gain, and frequently lethargy, brain fog, digestive difficulties, and poor sleep. Excess calories tax the blood sugar-insulin feedback loop and the digestive system, so the body may still be trying to digest instead of providing energy (during the day) or allowing for deep sleep (at night).
Fewer meals usually means fewer daily calories and increased attentiveness to mindful eating and hunger and satiety signals.
3. Lack of Distinct Eating Times
When we get in the habit of snacking, in my experience, it quickly turns to grazing. A bite of this, a sample of that, a sip of this, a quick try of that, and before you know it, you’ve had something caloric every hour regardless of whether you were actually hungry. And there’s never any reason to say no.
When we graze constantly, it’s hard to know what true hunger feels like any more. If you don’t know what hunger is, how can you truly know when it’s time for your body to eat? Or to stop?
Lacking distinct eating times also means losing the ritual of meals set at a table and the community feeling of breaking bread together. Eating becomes a mindless activity that happens anytime, anywhere.
Presence, connection, community, and ritual are so important to our overall health, longevity, and sense of self.
If opt for only 3 meals, we can allow ourselves the experience of sitting down to eat with friends or family, of knowing hunger beforehand, and of feeling satisfied with both the food and the company afterward.
4. Weight Gain
Whether because of the blood sugar and insulin spikes, lacking the need to draw on glucose reserves, or the excess calories, snacking can very frequently lead to weight gain.
If you are actually able to avoid calorie-creep, research suggests in a calorie-maintained environment there is no advantage to eating either 3 or 6 times per day. The idea that eating less frequently slows down metabolism is inaccurate. Research has found that metabolism doesn’t start to slow until at least 72 hours (3 days) without food. (And that there are actually metabolic, health, weight, and longevity benefits to fasting 18-24 hours 1-2x per week).
Most people in real life will find it difficult to avoid calorie creep when eating more frequently, which will inevitably mean gaining weight.
Though we often think that eating boosts energy (because of the rise in blood sugar), eating too frequently can also drain energy (beyond just the blood sugar lows). Digestion requires energy: first, to produce enzymes, HCL, and other digestive juices that break down food, then the immune system takes over separating the good from the bad, next absorption and transport of nutrients needs to happen, and finally peristaltic action moves the food through the intestines.
This entire digestive process takes 2 to 6 hours. If you’re eating too frequently, your body may be still trying to digest and process the last food while you’re adding more. The extra effort to digest new incoming food sucks energy and you may feel heavy, lethargic, or have difficulty concentrating.
To maintain energy levels, avoid fast-acting carbs, eat moderate, yet satisfying portions, emphasize protein, vegetables, and balanced macro nutrients, eat slowly and mindfully, and stick to just 2-3 meals per day. This is also true for improving insulin and blood sugar levels and losing weight.
Some people find it more difficult than others to cut out the snacks, whether because of habit, more challenging blood sugar issues, natural energy flows, temptation or any other reason. In those cases, I recommend BeLight Tea.
BeLight Tea acts as a pattern-interrupt to help break the snack habit, curb cravings, reduce hunger, and boost energy. For someone who knows the changes they need to make, it really can be the catalyst to better eating and a healthier weight and lifestyle.
Comment: What’s your eating style? 3 meals + 3 snacks? Or 2-3 meals per day? How does it work for you?
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