When it comes to weight loss we have been fed the message that small, frequent meals are the key to success.
Now, a recent study published by Deakin University researcher, Dr Rebecca Leech, has revealed that regular snacking is actually doing more harm than good when it comes to weight control. Yep. It’s hard to keep up.
Dr Leech performed a number of studies, investigating the relationship between meal timing, meal and snack size as well as the overall calorie intake of both men and women. In one study, Dr Leech analysed more than 5000 Australian men and women’s dietary intake over a 24-hour period, finding three distinct eating patterns – the regular eater, the late eater, and the grazers.
Conventional eaters accounted for roughly 40 percent of dietary patterns analysed, and were defined as those eating lunch and dinner close to, or at, 12pm and 6pm each day. Late eaters were more likely to eat lunch an hour or more later than conventional eaters and accounted for 35 percent of participants. 25 percent of women and 23 percent of men in the study were grazers and reported regular intake throughout the day.
"My research found evidence of a 'grazing' style eating pattern, characterised by higher snack frequency and energy intake from snacks and eating later in the day," Dr Leech said.
"This pattern was associated with higher intakes of unhealthy food in both men and women, and women who were overweight or obese were shown to be more likely to have a 'grazing' pattern."
However, the same cannot be said for meal frequency. There was no relationship between meal frequency and increased risk of being overweight or obese, only snacking frequency, and in particular snacking on junk foods after 8pm.
"The advice to have frequent small meals throughout the day to control hunger while increasing metabolism has been repeated so often that many have come to believe it, and with the abundance of often contradictory nutrition information out there it's no wonder that people are confused," she continued.
"It's actually meal frequency – not snack frequency – that can be associated with better adherence to national recommendations for healthy eating in both men and women."
Dr Leech says that these results shows there should be more of a focus on regular meals rather than snacking when it comes to healthy eating habits.
So, should we rule out snacking altogether? As is the case for all questions of diet and nutrition, it depends, Susie Burrell writes for news.com.au. If you are lean and up and about at the crack of dawn, a small, healthy snack before lunch could be a good idea, she advises. For the average joe, eating breakfast around 7 to 8am, waiting the 3 to 4 hours till lunchtime is probably more suitable. If you find yourself mindlessly smashing a pastry between meals, you’re probably not doing yourself any favours.
For a number of us, focusing on consuming three meals a day, with one or two snacks if necessary would be the best way to control both our calorie and discretionary food intake.