Opinion

A few large meals versus frequent small snacks | Column

As a child, my mother taught me many popular sayings. One of them was: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” That was back in London, England, where I grew up.

In many European countries, especially in the southern regions, that was the way most people planned their meals. A big breakfast allowed for an energetic start. Lunch was the main eating event of the day, often followed by a siesta for digestion. Dinner, on the other hand, was more like an afterthought, consisting of little else than a sandwich or some leftovers. Only on holidays a more elaborate meal would be served later in the day.

Here in the United States, the schedule is almost reversed. Many Americans skip breakfast, work through lunch and then make up for the day-long deprivation with a big helping in the evening. Or people don’t observe any regular mealtimes at all any more and graze all day on snack foods instead.

A study from the Czech Republic, which was recently presented at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions Conference in Chicago, found that participants who had only two large meals during the day and no dinner at night were more likely to lose weight than their counterparts who ate three regular meals plus three small snacks, despite the fact that the amount of calories consumed in each group were the same and other factors like exercise and lifestyle remained unaltered.

These findings stand in sharp contrast to the idea that distributing food intake in form of smaller portions throughout the day may be a better way to control weight. Yet, experts on the subject are not too surprised by the study outcome. Eating six times or more a day makes it much harder to keep track of your calorie counts than if you only have to deal with two meals or so.

The concept of spreading out your food consumption may not be such a bad idea if it didn’t lead to constant grazing, as it often does. “Six mini meals turn into six major meals, and people wonder why they’re not losing weight,” said Madelyn Fernstrom, the diet and nutrition editor of NBC’s TODAY show, in a comment about the study. “The real-life takeaway here is less about skipping dinner, and more about simply eating less frequently.”

To be sure, snacking, even frequent snacking, by itself is not automatically a bad thing. What makes snacking healthy or unhealthy is what you eat and how it fits into your daily lifestyle, said Dr. Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to WebMD. “If your snacks add a lot of calories that are not offset by eating less at other times or increasing physical activity, it will cause weight gain.”

The reason why snacking is now considered one of the likely causes of the obesity epidemic is that it occurs with growing frequency. Today, the average American eats almost five snacks in addition to regular meals, an increase of nearly 30 percent since the 1970s. By comparison, portion sizes of sit-down meals, although often lamented, have only grown by about 12 percent, according to U.S. government surveys.

The ubiquity of snack food is what seduces people to consume so much of it, according to Dr. Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of the blog “The Portion Teller.” Wherever you go, gas stations, drugstores, you name it, there is food staring you in the face, she says. In this food-filled environment, “we need to be conscious of when we eat, how much we eat, and what we eat.”

Eating the European way may not be feasible or even desirable for many Americans. Taking long lunch breaks, let alone afternoon naps, doesn’t go very well with our busy lifestyles. Constant snacking, on the other hand, is not a good alternative and can cause problems over time.

There are many ways to find a workable middle-ground, though. For example, you don’t want to allow yourself to get too hungry during the day to avoid overeating later on. If snack foods are an irresistible temptation for you, you shouldn’t keep them within reach. Whenever you eat breakfast or lunch or anything in between, choose only highly nutritious ingredients that give you energy but don’t fill you up too much. If you need a small snack now and then, make it a healthy one as well. And drink plenty of water. Your hunger pangs may actually be symptoms of dehydration.

How you time all of this is up to you. You just have to make it work in your favor.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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