The Art of Grazing
Some time ago, after an embarrassing night with a block of cheese and a sleeve of Saltines, I decided that for the next week I would eat three meals a day. Nothing more. Well, here's the thing about this kind of strict regimen: There's always cheating involved. For me, it came in the form of ravenous trips to the vending machine, mindless munching between meals, and postdinner snacks when my stomach still wouldn't stop grumbling.
Stretching the time between meals, I reasoned, was doing nothing but making me eat more. So I took a different tack: grazing throughout the day. According to Julia Zumpano, RD, a dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic, eating multiple small meals in lieu of three squares could help you lose weight and better control your diabetes. And a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal found that eating frequent small meals may lower your cholesterol; in the study, people who ate six small meals a day had 5 percent lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels than those who ate only one or two meals even though that first group consumed more calories.
"Six small meals is more healthy for someone who is trying to watch their cholesterol and their diabetes," says Zumpano. "You tend to eat less and pay attention to what you're eating."
But before you start snacking your way to better health, be warned: You can't just add a few extra meals to your day and hope to lose weight. In order to get the benefits of eating frequent small meals, you must also downsize the breakfast, lunch, and dinner you're already consuming. "Snacking is good but you need to eat less or you're going to go over your calories," says Zumpano, who suggests cutting each of your typical meals in half.
Once you've slashed your meals, replace those calories with small, healthy snacks that you can eat every 3 hours. (Stop eating about 3 hours before you go to bed.) There are a few reasons eating frequent meals works. For starters, you're replacing high-calorie and high-fat foods—think your lunchtime ham sandwich or dinner of steak and mashed potatoes—with healthier options like fruits and veggies. In the end, you consume fewer calories but eat more often so you stay full longer. Plus, you'll give yourself less room to overeat. "It usually takes a bit of time for your body to know it's satisfied. So with bigger meals people tend to eat more," Zumpano says.
According to Zumpano, your choice of snacks is key. "Focusing on fruits and veggies and then whole grains is what I would do," she says. Try eating a small piece of fruit, a cup of veggies with hummus, 6 ounces of yogurt, or a slice of bread with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter in between meals. When it comes to your three downsized meals during the day, Zumpano advises keeping the total daily amount of animal protein around 5 or 6 ounces. Plus, she says, "choosing all your foods to be as fiber [rich] as possible will help you control cholesterol and control blood sugars."
It may sound easy, but there are a few points to consider if you're ready to give it a go. First, talk to your doctor about altering your meal schedule if you are on insulin, says Carol French, CDE, RD, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian in the Department of Endocrinology at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Your doctor will want to discuss whether you should give yourself insulin shots before these smaller meals and if you need to alter the number of times you check your blood glucose.
And keep in mind the point of following the plan: to reduce your calorie consumption, eat healthier, and gain better control over your diabetes. So, if you find yourself eating too-big portions or snacking on bad-for-you foods, it may be time to call it quits. Those who lack restraint may find that adding additional opportunities to overeat leads to greater calorie consumption.
If your doctor backs your decision to eat smaller, more frequent meals, the plan could help you gain better blood glucose control. "There's definitely a benefit. You put a smaller amount of glucose into the bloodstream, therefore causing the blood sugar to go up at a slower rate," says Zumpano. "It definitely would be a good reason to try." French agrees: "In general, I think people do better when they eat more often. Trying to keep meals 5 or 6 hours apart is a long time for a lot of people," she says.
Ready to snack smartly? Search our Recipes section for the healthy mini-meal ideas listed below. You may just find, as I did, that eating throughout the day helps you stay full and satisfied—and get healthier, too.