Meals vs Snacks – What’s right for you?
Eating between meals is a case of an old dogma vs a new one. My parents and their generation would tout the accepted knowledge that you should not snack between meals. This was bad for your waistline and everyone knew it. Then the fitness industry began to challenge this dogma, claiming that eating every few hours and having three meals and three snacks per day was optimal for health and body composition. This led to confusion and argument, the pendulum swung.
Today, most health experts will agree that the three meals and three snacks advice is likely not optimal for most people, and a lower meal frequency is likely superior.
The practice of eating every few hours has merit if you’re a large, lean, highly active individual. But for the majority of people who are modestly active and train 3-4 times per week, this is likely not the case. As with all things human, a great spectrum of realities are true across the population. Some people will indeed thrive on higher meal frequencies, others on only one or two meals per day. But regardless of which camp you sit in, only eating meals, never snacks is a consistently superior strategy.
Definitions: What is a meal, what is a snack?
Meals, for our purposes, contain a source of protein, veg, carbs if you’re eating them, and fats. Snacks are anything that does not constitute this full combination. Foods in isolation, such as a handful of nuts, a calorie-containing drink, or biscuits & chocolate are all classed as snacks.
The difference between these two intakes on your physiology is huge. A meal, due to its combination of protein, fibre, carbohydrate, and fats, in solid form, is digested and absorbed very slowly in comparison to the same foods eaten in isolation. This slow digestion results in a favourable blood sugar reaction post meal, more satiety and thus less hunger.
A snack, on the other hand, is far more quickly digested, thus hits the bloodstream quicker and is therefore metabolised faster. Leading to less satiety, more hunger and more dependence on eating frequently.
Not only that, but your judgment of how much you have eaten, both physiologically speaking and psychologically speaking will be far more accurate, leading to a much lower likelihood of overeating, if you only eat meals and never snack. Snacks are very easy to consume mindlessly. Just take popcorn at the cinema as the consummate example. Ask a person to report what they ate today and they are very unlikely to misreport their full meals. But they will be very likely to fail to remember the odd biscuit or handful of almonds they consumed while at their desk.
People eat for many different reasons. Boredom, comfort, simply because it is time to do so, social conformity / socialising. If you only eat meals you are less likely to engage in mindless comfort or boredom eating, again decreasing the likelihood that you will overeat. Having a meal-only principle will also increase your opportunities for mindful eating.
How to make this work in everyday life?
One suggestion for a strategy to make this work in your daily life, the meal box tactic. When preparing your food for the day, put the day’s requirements into a large Tupperware. Whenever you feel the need to eat, eat from the box, stop when satisfied and eat again when hungry. This means that even for grazers, eating a mixed, full meal at each small sitting is very possible.
If you’re interested in adjusting your diet and nutrition to reap the benefits of a healthier meals-only lifestyle then why not take a look at our Baseline Diet download:
Our free, downloadable guide arms you with all the foundations of a successful nutrition plan – download now to start your journey.