There is so much confusion as to how often and what time of the day we should be eating. Some experts promote eating small meals every couple of hours; some are adamant that 3 meals per day is the way to go whilst some promote snacks as an important part of any healthy eating regime. To top it all off we are now being told that no food is better and intermittent fasting is the way to go! No wonder it gets confusing. Here is my scoop on when we should eat our meals -
We are constantly told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that we should never skip this. This is somewhat true, a good quality breakfast sets us up for the day however if you wake up in the morning and breakfast is the last thing you feel like then you may be a person that is better to eat a later more substantial ‘brunch’. If you eat late at night then a later breakfast or coupled with a substantial afternoon snack and dinner may be a good way to go providing you are getting enough complex carbs, good fats and high quality protein.
Eat several small meals a day
Many diet experts promote that several small meals throughout the day is the way to go. Some people find that they need to ‘graze’ as this helps to keep their blood sugar levels balanced and metabolism revved. If you are prone to hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar and you like to eat small meals this approach may be beneficial, particularly to help prevent you getting ‘hangry’ during the day. There is however no evidence to support that regular eating will boost the metabolism. Constant eating may even increase the levels of the appetite control hormone leptin which can put us at risk of leptin resistance which can increase our risk of obesity by increasing our appetite! If you go without food for long periods of time it is thought that the metabolism may drop as part of the body’s survival mechanism but according to the Minnesota starvation study it takes 3 days of ZERO food for your BMR to drop just 8% which means we need to be literally starving for our body to do this.
Eat 3 meals a day and snacks
Eating 3 meals a day with a couple of light snacks is a good way to maintain energy and blood sugar levels and is particularly beneficial for those people that have disordered eating or have an active lifestyle. Having regular meals and snacks to look forward to brings routine and can even help with weight loss when the right amount of food is being eaten. When you eat regularly throughout the day, your body knows that more food is on the way, therefore it's more likely to burn the calories you consume rather than store them as fat when you eat the right amount. Where it can fall down is when people eat too much food and choose unhealthy snacks which can lead to weight gain.
Some healthy eating plans promote snacks and others don’t so which really is better? Basically it comes down to how much food your body really needs. If you are a highly active person you will burn more energy and you will need more fuel throughout the day. Snacks can help stabilise blood sugar and prevent hunger pangs which may help to prevent overeating later in the day. My advice is if you are hungry have a snack rather than starve yourself until the next meal. Skipping meals or avoiding snacks when you are hungry can lead to eating too much at the next meal. Choose healthy snacks that are nutrient dense and that contain a mix of good fats and protein to help maintain energy levels.
Healthy snack ideas include - Carrot stick and hummus, apple slices with nut butter, a handful of raw nuts, a small yoghurt with berries or a bliss ball. Avoid mindless snacking or eating because of boredom and only eat a snack when you are hungry. If you regularly eat snacks when you do not really need them, particularly high energy dense snacks you could find yourself sneaking on a couple of unwanted extra kilos.
Our bodies are naturally designed to fast at night to allow our system to rest and reset. If we eat our last meal at night e.g. 7pm and have breakfast at 7pm we have given our body a 12hr fast. What happens however is many people eat late at night and go to bed on a full tummy which can burden the digestive system and give us a restless sleep. Constantly having food in our system, particularly foods that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates can spike insulin and blood sugar levels and put us at risk of insulin resistance and type two diabetes. Fasting or going without food for 12 - 16 hrs. hours therefore can help to lower high blood sugar levels and insulin levels.
Intermittent fasting has become a buzz word of late and for good reason. Studies on intermittent fasting suggest that there is a myriad of health benefits that come with giving your system a break. Benefits include an improved immune system, improved brain health, improvement in metabolic syndrome and diabetes type 2 and lower levels of IGF-1 or insulin like growth factor a hormone that is linked to ageing and increased cancer risk. Intermittent fasting basically means restricting food for anything between a 12– 16hr window . If we are eating an early dinner and a later breakfast we will naturally do this however intermittent fasting 1 - 2 days per week may be a good way to go for those that this is not possible for.
There is no one size fits all approach. The most important thing is to eat a healthy well balanced diet with plenty of anti-oxidant rich fruit and veggies, include good quality proteins with each meal such as yoghurt, nuts, lean poultry, fish, eggs or legumes and include good quality fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, oily fish. The bottom line is to listen to your body and do what works and feels right for you.