Although our grandparents and great-grandparents typically ate three meals a day, today we eat five times a day, on average. And although it’s often claimed that eating more often can help you control your weight, it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Is a healthy snack the answer? Will a healthy snack help you get through the day and still stick to your goals?
Snacking is optional
Here in the UK it’s gotten to the point that we now eat pretty much constantly—in the car, at our desks, at the cinema, and even while we shop. I’ve even seen people eat during their workouts at the gym! Snacking has become so institutionalised that most “nutritious” meal plans now include three meals and at least two snack options. In fact, many people now view snacking as a nutritional necessity.
Countless diet gurus and personal trainers insist that you must eat every two to three hours to keep your metabolism revved up. However, just because you’ve read or heard this a few thousand times doesn’t make it true. Not only will your metabolism not slow down if you go more than three hours without food, but there may actually be some benefits to going longer between meals.
The popular notion that eating every few hours will keep your metabolism revved up is based on a couple of different misunderstandings about how metabolism works. The first has to do with the so-called “starvation mode”. If you go too long without eating, your body adjusts its metabolism to conserve energy and burn fewer calories, just in case the food shortage continues. Going into “starvation mode” is a survival strategy. During a famine, you’d need to live on your stored fat, and down-regulating your metabolism is a way to make those fat stores go a bit farther. It’s similar to the way your laptop adjusts its energy usage when it’s running on batteries by making the screen a little dimmer. When food is plentiful again, your metabolism goes back to normal, just the way your screen gets brighter when you plug your laptop back in. If there actually were a famine, you’d be glad that your body is designed this way. But if you’re trying to maintain your weight or lose a few pounds, the last thing you want is increased fuel efficiency. You want to be burning through stored fat like a Ferrari burns through a tank of petrol. And supposedly, if you reassure your body that there is no shortage of food by eating every few hours, it will oblige you by continuing to burn calories with reckless metabolic abandon. The argument makes sense, except for one small thing. Your body doesn’t go into starvation mode if you go three hours without food. It takes about three days of fasting or serious caloric restriction for your body to respond with any sort of metabolic adjustment. Rest assured that going four or even twelve hours between meals will have virtually no effect on your metabolism.
In fact, going longer between meals can have some very beneficial effects on your blood sugar and other aspects of your health. It takes about three hours for your body to finish digesting a meal. If you eat every two or three hours, as everyone insists you should, your body will constantly be in what nutritionists call the “fed state.” That simply means that you are always in the process of digesting food.
If, on the other hand, you don’t eat again, you’ll go into something we call the “postabsorptive state” after about three hours. Several interesting things happen in the postabsorptive state, which continues for another twelve to eighteen hours if you don’t eat again. First, you begin tapping into your body’s stored energy reserves to run your engine. Your hormone levels adjust to shift your body out of fat-storage mode and into fat-burning mode. Hanging out in the postabsorptive state also reduces free-radical damage and inflammation, increases the production of antiaging hormones, and promotes tissue repair. And, of course, your metabolic rate remains unchanged.
The biggest problem you are likely to experience if you go a bit longer between meals is feeling hungry, and this is not as big a problem as many of us have led ourselves to believe. When you are used to always being in the fed state, you tend to panic the minute you notice that your stomach is empty. In fact, feeling hungry is not a medical emergency. Often, if you simply wait ten minutes the feeling will go away. Sometimes simply having a cup of tea or a glass of water does the trick. Allowing your stomach to be empty for an hour or two is really not that uncomfortable if you let yourself get used to the sensation. It’s also the perfect time to exercise. Exercising two or three hours after you eat will allow you to get the most out of your workout and, as a bonus, it usually makes hunger pangs go away. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here, I’m not advising you to stop eating or to starve yourself. But as long as you are eating the appropriate amount of food each day, it’s okay to feel hungry between meals.
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I’m not against snacking, per-se I’m an enthusiastic snacker myself. But contrary to what you may have been led to believe, snacking is definitely optional. And when you choose to snack, you want to be sure you’re doing it well.
Some people find that eating five or six times a day instead of the traditional three square meals works better for them. For example, you may make better dietary choices if you don’t let yourself get as hungry between meals. If that helps you maintain a healthy diet, it’s a valid option. Just don’t let the metabolism myth seduce you into thinking that eating more frequently allows you to eat more. If you’re gaining weight when you don’t mean to (or not losing when you’re trying to), it’s a sign that you need to cut back on the size of your meals or the number of your snacks (or both).
My favourite healthy snacks:
- Tesco’s finest spiced beetroot
- Raw carrots
- Raw celery sticks
- Raw peppers
- Other nuts and seeds
- Cucumber sticks
- Hardboiled egg
- Protein balls (homemade are best)
- Herbal teas
Although I think it’s always preferable to snack on real food, there are all kinds of energy and meal replacement bars designed to offer a convenient solution to your on-the-go nutrition needs. They don’t need refrigeration, preparation, or even utensils. In a pinch, they will keep you going. But it’s important to match the bar to the situation. For example, if it’s 3p.m. and you’re sitting at your desk feeling a little groggy, it might seem like an energy bar would be the perfect solution. But unless your job involves heavy physical work, that’s not really the kind of energy you’re looking for. More likely, you could use a break, a walk, a stretch, some fresh air, a cup of tea. Any of these will be more energising than a concentrated dose of carbohydrates.
My Salad Nicoise Recipe
Ingredients (Serves 4)
For the dressing:
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
- 175ml/6fl oz extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- pinch sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
- 4 free-range eggs
- 8 small artichoke hearts, cooked
- 4 tomatoes, skinned and quartered
- 16 black olives
- ½ cucumber, peeled, sliced
- 4 spring onions, sliced
- handful fine green beans, topped, tailed, blanched
- 1 tin anchovies in olive oil
- small handful fresh basil
- Whisk the garlic and oil together in a bowl and set to the side.
- Boil the eggs in a saucepan. When cooked cool under a cold running tap for 2-3 minutes and then peel the eggs
- For the salad, arrange all of the salad ingredients (except the basil) in a shallow dish. Pour over the vinegar and garlic oil and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Finish with a sprinkling of basil and serve at the table.
How tasty was your meal?
My tips to stop the snacks attacks:
- Eat a bigger breakfast. If you’re trying to make it five hours until lunch time, you’d want to eat more like 400 or 500 calories for breakfast. It also helps if your 2 meals a day are balanced and nutritious, containing protein, healthy fats, and slow-burning carbohydrates, such as those you get from vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
- When you feel hungry between meals wait at least ten minutes if it doesn’t go away have a glass of water or a tasty herbal tea.
- Take your time. When you having a snack of nuts for example, eat 1 nut at a time, make it last longer and slow the whole process down.
- Snack on real food not snack foods. Make your own and plan your meals in advance. Planning is key.
Happy Snacking 😜