Q: Is it OK to graze until dinner? How can I do this in a healthy way to keep my diet balanced?
A: How often should you eat is a surprisingly confusing and controversial topic, so I totally understand that you are unsure about what is best for you. We’ve all heard that eating more frequently will keep your metabolism revved, but studies show that noshing often doesn’t provide much of an impact on calorie burning, if any. To muddle things even more, there’s uncertainty in the scientific community about the role and impact of meal frequency on health and weight loss.
Despite all this befuddlement, grazing is okay, as long it’s not done mindlessly. You need to find a sweet spot where you’re eating at intervals that allow your meals to be filling and nutritious and provide the energy you need.
If you have a bite too often, then the size of your snacks and meals will have to be so small (200 to 300 calories) that none of them will have any satiating value, and this can cause you to end up eating more calories by the end of the day than expected. Having a bite too frequently also means your body doesn’t have time to digest and process the food you have eaten before the next meal comes along. This becomes important when we look at protein synthesis, or your body’s ability to repair and build muscle. To optimize this process, the amino acids—what your body breaks protein down into—in your blood stream need to rise and then fall. If they are constantly up, your body isn’t able to function at its best.
On the flip side, too few meals makes it difficult to consume dishes consisting exclusively of high-quality nutrients since few women can consume 700 calories of nutritious food (that’s almost 8 cups of spinach!). Going too long between repasts also increases the chance that your hunger will grow so much that you overeat when you finally let yourself have a meal.
So what does this mean for you? I have found that for most women the sweet spot is four to five “meals” a day, saving that extra meal for days you work out and therefore need a pre- or post-workout snack to fuel your body. On other days, I usually have clients eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and one other small meal or snack, either around 10 a.m. or 3 or 4 p.m., depending on their schedule and the timing of lunch and dinner.
This strategy works extremely well, as the meal sizes are large enough so that you can eat high-quality, nutrient-dense foods to feel satisfied and fueled, but not so large that your daily total caloric intake is too high. If you find that your main meals are too much to down in one sitting on this plan, then increase the size of your snack to be more like a meal and evenly distribute your calories across all four meals.