When I was studying nutrition the mantra we were taught was ‘little and often’ - 3 meals and 2 snacks was considered to be the right way to eat and very important to ensure that blood sugar remained balanced. This was an approach that I followed for very many years both with my own diet and with the people I see in my clinic.
However, over the course of time my thinking has started to change, which has made me question whether this way of eating is right for everyone. This change has been influenced by a number of things including the latest dietary research, the introduction of new approaches to eating that emphasises fasting. (5:2 diet, 16/8 diet, Warrior Diet, alternate day fasting, etc, etc………) and a number of years ago I became a Metabolic Balance coach.
One of the principles of Metabolic Balance is to ensure that you stick to your 3 meals a day with no snacking at all – on this programme it is very important to leave a 5 hour gap between meals. The logic of this is to accelerate fat burning. Even if you eat a well-balanced snack your glucose levels will go up, and this will be followed by a rise in your insulin levels. If the body senses any rise in insulin, even a small one, it will ‘switch off’ fat burning, making it harder to lose weight. Hence, there is no snacking on the Metabolic Balance programme.
Where it all goes wrong
For many people snacking becomes a mini meal – adding an additional 300-400 calories each time. These snacks are often not well balanced and lacking a decent level of protein. The end result is that people end up on a constant cycle of - eat – hunger /cravings – eat again. Leaving them feeling tired and cranky and endlessly hungry, and it goes with out saying, prone to putting on weight.
So now my approach is to use snacking selectively in the process of helping people get their diet more balanced. Think about them a bit like training wheels on a bike when you are learning to ride. I might suggest them (as long as they are good well balanced snacks) in the first instance, but over the course of time I ask people to drop them out. Some people quickly get to the point where they can drop the mid morning first, followed hopefully by the mid afternoon snack too.
Can’t stop snacking?
There are a whole bunch of reasons why you might find it difficult to stop snacking:
- Bored: how many of us reach for a snack when we are feeling a bit bored or have nothing better to do. If this is a trigger for you then recognise it and plan a distracting activity
- Habit: if a trip to the shop or the vending machine is part of your daily routine it can be a hard habit to break. Sometimes it is just an excuse to take a break – so go for a walk instead.
- Tempted: if your cupboards are stocked with temping treats how easy do you find it is to ignore them? They sort of talk to us from the cupboards…. 'eat me’. If you don’t keep stuff in your house / bag or desk drawer you are less likely to be tempted.
- Thirsty: if you are well hydrated then you are less likely to get the munchies. Ensure that you keep topped up with water throughout the day.
.....none of these are actually to do with being hungry!
However, some people can get very hungry if they skip snacks and end up with bad cravings that cause them to make poor food choices or overeat at their next meal. In this case the first thing to think about is how well balanced was your last meal?
- Did you eat enough protein to slow down the release of glucose from the food that you ate?
- Did you choose white refined starches like bread, rice and pasta rather than their wholegrain equivalents?
- How large was the starchy component portion of your meal? - by starch I mean all grains whether bread, rice, pasta or other grains such as couscous and root vegetables (potatoes, parsnips, etc)
More often these cravings are due to poor food choices or combining foods in the wrong proportions.
How do I eat?
As a rule I don’t snack at all. However, if I have a crazy day with less control over what & when I eat then I might have a snack. It will be one that is high in protein and fibre and low in all types of sugar. For me as boring as it might sound it will be a few nuts or a small handful of seeds. I know that these will fill me up and stop me being hungry.