It seems like every time I look at a magazine, there’s some new research on the best way to eat to lose weight, be healthier, and look my best. I guess three squares just don’t cut it anymore; today, the trend is more toward eating small meals throughout the day or grazing, eating only when you’re hungry, without restricting yourself to mealtimes. Forget the days when dieting meant you could hardly eat at all—now the approach is to be eating almost constantly, in hopes that it will fuel metabolism and stave off hunger cravings. Is this really a healthy way to eat, or just Hollywood hype?
Eat to Your Health
The idea of grazing overlaps with other eating philosophies, such as mindful or intuitive eating, learning to be fully aware of the ways in which your body responds to food and hunger, and the trend, since the 1980s, of snacking as a supplement to meals.
“Are you eating because you’re hungry or because it’s dinnertime?” is the question proponents of grazing ask. We’ve programmed ourselves to eat at certain times in order to set a social standard and leave time for other things, like work and play, but is this really what our bodies need? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably didn’t sit down to regular meals; more likely, they chose to pick up nuts and berries as they found them and as they needed to appease their hunger. Liberated from allegedly archaic mealtimess, grazers can instead revert to their own instincts, becoming mindful of their hunger and exactly what they would like to eat. That may mean munching on trail mix throughout the morning and eating a cheese sandwich at 4:00 p.m., rather than eating a full lunch and dinner and craving snacks later on.
There’s also evidence to support the theory that eating more frequently throughout the day is healthier in terms of preventing extreme hunger that leads to binge eating or overeating at meals, providing consistent fuel for an active lifestyle, and improving blood sugar control. One study, “Meal Patterns and Practical Applications for Obesity Management,” by Matthew F. Good, a registered dietician from the University of Akron, Ohio, looked at the eating habits of 665 overweight or obese subjects. While the study showed no significant increase in the subjects’ metabolism (one of the reputed benefits of frequent eating), it did reveal that the amount of calories the subjects ate at meals was indirectly related to the frequency with which they ate. That means that the more meals we eat, the smaller they are and, very probably, the fewer calories we take in for the whole day.
People who eat more often also tend to take in a wider range of nutrients than those with fewer meals. Sure, there are those for whom grazing means munching away on a bag of chips all day, but those who plan meals and snacks with plenty of variety leave less room for nutritional gaps in their diet. That’s not to say that you can’t eat a great, balanced diet with only three meals a day—only that it’s easier to hit all the parts of the food pyramid when you have more room to play around with different meal combinations.
But Mama Said Not to Spoil Your Appetite
Grazing may be the best way to eat for some people, especially those who lead very active lives, but it’s not for everyone. There are a few reasons why we shouldn’t all become grazers.
For those with emotional-eating problems, like sufferers of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, the structure of three meals a day is important. Only with strict social and external guidelines for “normal” eating can people with these serious issues overcome their anxieties about food. Mindfulness is not an option for eating-disordered people because their bodies’ instinctual cues are so blocked by a skein of tangled emotions.
But don’t we all have a little bit of this anxiety? Isn’t it what keeps us buying magazines that tell us how to eat, as if we didn’t know ourselves? Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, chalks this up to what he calls our “national eating disorder.” We could all use the structure of three communal meals to bring us back to normal eating, which Pollan defines as how our grandparents ate when they were young. Back then, he argues, snacking between meals was frowned upon and meals were set group activities. There was no wolfing down a sack of ten White Castle hamburgers at the drive-through or downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in front of the television. Food was bound up in a series of rituals and social mores that also served as nutritional guidelines and checks on overeating. Grazing, on the other hand, removes these checks and balances. According to Pollan, without the structure of meals and with our palates fooled by the empty calories most snack foods contain, we’ll just keep stuffing our faces.
Those of us with pets see this trend playing out in the growing pet obesity epidemic. If you put a plate of food out for a dog, for example, he’ll just keep eating until the food is gone. If you give him more, he’ll eat that, too. We have to discipline our pets to keep them at a healthy weight, instituting mealtimes and measuring portions, and do the same for ourselves. Grazing may have been a natural state for early humans and wild animals because their food intake was balanced by periodic scarcity, but in the modern age of plenty, both humans and animals must find alternative checks for their appetites.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization reveals that most people in developed nations consume five or six small meals a day, on average, within a range of two to nine meals. This suggests that we’re not grazing or eating the traditional three square meals. The demands of a 24/7 media culture and the fact that more women work outside the home and aren’t around to prepare meals as much as our grandmothers were make catch-as-catch-can the most popular and necessary way for us to get the fuel we need to keep going. No one set of rules about eating will suit our varied lifestyles, but it’s important to remember what both Michael Pollan and proponents of grazing believe, though they come at this belief from different directions: don’t eat mindlessly. Savor your food because it satisfies your hunger, because you share it with good company, or both. However, whenever and whatever you eat, let it make you happy and healthy.
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Updated December 2, 2010