How often should you eat? 

How often should we eatHave you ever wondered how often you should eat? Should you eat 5 smaller meals, nibble consistently throughout the day or have 3 solid meals?

As is the case very often in nutrition, different experts have different opinions. This is probably due to bio-individuality: No one diet or way of eating works for everyone and the key is to experiment to find what works for YOU.

This is my opinon only, based on my own experience.

I used to graze constantly. 

I would have breakfast (usually cereal like Special K which I thought was healthy), then a snack like a banana or apple mid-morning, then lunch which I tried to keep ‘healthy‘ by having a very light salad, but filling up on bread. In the afternoon, I would start having sugar cravings and I would go for a Coke and whatever chocolate or cookies were lying around the office where I was working. Dinner was usually more bread with cheese (what I called a picnic dinner) or pasta or sometimes when I was alone and feeling indulgent I would have a ‘dessert meal’ – eating steamed brocolli followed by half a tub of ice-cream instead of a proper meal.

Not surprisingly, my digestion wasn’t great and I often had energy dips – which only led to eating more sugar.

When I began changing my diet, I started by adding in fats and protein to replace my carbohydrate rich meals. For example, at breakfast I would have oatmeal with nuts and seeds or a green smoothie with nuts and seeds (which provide both fats and protein) or eggs (again, a great source of both). I started noticing that my energy levels were more stable and I no longer needed my mid-morning banana when I asked myself whether I was really hungry. I then started making sure my lunches included a source of healthy fats and protein, even if I was having a salad or soup. I also started eating more filling lunches, often by bringing leftovers from dinner to work.

After a while, I noticed that I no longer needed to snack in the afternoon and I could wait for dinner to eat again. I also found that my digestion improved because I was giving it a proper break between meals to do its work more efficiently. And I lost a few kilos as well without going on a diet, but simply by eating more healthy, proper meals and snacking only when I was really, truly hungry between meals.

Why is that? A very simplified explanation is that after you eat, your body burns sugar from your meal as energy. Once it has burned the sugar, it starts burning fat, and this is when weight loss happens. If you think about it, even if you just eat a cucumber, your body gets busy digesting the cucumber instead of burning fat and if you are constantly grazing and eating late at night, you never really give it the break it needs to switch to fat-burning mode.

But hold on! Don’t switch to 3 meals immediately…

If you tend to have energy crashes, especially mid-morning and mid-afternoon when you start hearing the siren calls of sugar, stabilize your blood sugar levels first before trying to cut out grazing. In the beginning, aim for 5 smaller meals, with a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and even before going to bed if you are hungry.

This isn’t permission to load up on unhealthy snacks though! Make sure you have meals and snacks that are high in healthy fats and protein which fill you up and keep your energy stable. Possible snacks that are high in healthy fats and protein can include nuts or seeds, a hard-boiled egg, a little meat, fish or chicken, a piece of cheese, fresh or dried fruit with nut butter, 1/2 an avocado, humus with raw veggies, a small pot of plain, organic yoghurt, dates with sunflower seeds or these date and nut balls.

It is also important to reduce the following as much as possible to avoid energy crashes: Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, refined starches such as white rice and white bread as well as processed foods, sodas and even fruit juice.

Once you find your energy levels start stablizing, eat a little more at meals and start asking yourself whether you are really hungry for a snack. You will find that if you eat proper meals, you won’t actually need to snack, or you will need to snack less.

Experiment with how you feel when you don‘t snack between meals.

Notice how it feels to eat your next meal when you are really hungry. 

Of course, it is not just what you eat or how often that counts – HOW you eat is just as important. Properly chewing your meals and being relaxed enables you to fully leverage your digestive fire and assimilate more of the nutrients from your meals. Also, when you slow down and take pleasure in your meals, your mind registers that it has eaten and you feel satisfied for longer after a meal.

What about you – how many times a day do you eat? Do you feel it works well for you?