Expert nutritionist Sophie Thurner is back with a guest blog, answering a popular question. Is snacking bad for you, really? Read on for the truth behind so-called eating rules, so you can snack in peace!
Should we be eating 3 meals a day or having a larger number of smaller meals per day?
Babies are born with the inclination and need to have lots of small, regular feedings in a day. However the frequency of eating changes over time, thanks to our personal preference as well as cultural/social norms.
Whether snacking (multiple smaller snacks a day) or gorging (1-3 large meals a day) is better for us has been subject to some, but not much research, and depends on what aspect of health we’re looking at. That’s probably why there are lots of myths floating around regarding meal frequency and its effects.
We’ll take a closer look at some of the most common ones and determine whether there’s any truth behind them.
1. Snacking on smaller meals multiple times a day boosts our metabolism compared to having 3 main meals.
So far, the consensus of research is that increased meal frequency does not enhance metabolic rate. Whether that’s resting metabolic rate, diet induced thermogenesis or total energy expenditure. If calories and macronutrient split are kept the same, meal frequency does not make a difference.
2. Eating smaller snacks more frequently has some health benefits over eating a small number of large meals.
Increased meal frequency appears to have a positive effect on various blood markers of health, particularly LDL (“bad”) and total cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin and glucose secretion.
However, there are some caveats to this:
These benefits have been found with a few meals compared to a single large meal daily. A linear correlation between increased meal frequency improved blood markers has not been established. Meaning that 17 snacks per day, for instance, have not been found to improve glucose tolerance compared to 4 isocaloric snacks
The blood marker benefits were observed in the short term. Whether these positive adaptations occur in longer duration is yet to be studied
The observed benefits have been found mostly when calories are restricted
3. Meal regularity matters.
Studies have found that irregular eating patterns may have a negative metabolic effect. Whether we tend to snack or gorge, sticking to one approach is more important than which one. Regularity can help keep energy and blood sugar stable, decrease hunger and improve appetite control.
Greater appetite control has also been found with more than a single meal per day because it may affect gastric stretch and gastric hormones that contribute to satiety.
4. Snacking is better for our gut health than gorging.
A pattern of 3 meals a day has been shown to be better for our gut microbiome. This is because breaks between food intake stimulate good bacteria in the gut and allow for regeneration of the gut lining. These bouts of short-term fasting enable a greater variety of microbes to flourish at the next meal intake.
5. Snacking reduces muscle loss compared to gorging.
Correct – in certain circumstances.
When we are in a hypocaloric state (i.e. consume less calories than expended), increasing meal frequency may preserve muscle mass if protein levels are adequate (0.8g/kg of body weight per day).
The physiological effects of meal frequency in humans is not black and white. Particularly if we consider multiple aspects of health. Most research shows that having more than a single, very large meal per day is beneficial in most aspects of health.
So is snacking bad for you? Whether you have 6 smaller snacks or 3 larger meals with the same amount of calories in a day makes little difference. The best approach would be to go by your preference. This increases the likelihood to stick to one approach and avoid over or under-eating.
Whether you prefer snacks or meal, the best composition of either is to include vegetables and/or fruit, as well as a little bit of fat, protein and carbohydrate. This could be:
Piece of fruit (e.g. 1 medium apple/pear/orange, 2 small fruit – kiwi/plum/satsuma, a handful of grapes or berries) with a small handful of unsalted nuts
Vegetables (e.g. cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, pepper sticks, celery, cucumber with a little bit of hummus, cottage cheese or hard cheese)
Wholegrain crackers with some olives, half an avocado or a teaspoon of pesto
Want some more nutrition advice? Head on over to the Auro community group and check out our handy training videos. The real Auro trainers are members, and are there to answer your questions – so go talk to them!