Big meals vs snacking: Which is better?


Fact Box

  • Theories as to how the daily American eating structure of 'breakfast, lunch, and dinner' arose include European settlers' desire to differentiate themselves from Native Americans who ate when they got hungry. 'Civilized people ate properly and boundaried their eating, thus differentiating themselves from the animal kingdom, where grazing is the norm.'
  • The Food Surveys Research Group found that snacks supply, on average, about 25% of the daily caloric intake for US adults.
  • Experts at the MD Anderson Center suggest the healthiest snacks should include 'an unrefined carbohydrate, like fruit or whole grain crackers, and a protein, like peanut butter or cheese.'
  • According to data from the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the average American eats more than 3,600 calories a day.

Jimmy (Snacking)

Throughout history, the concept of meals has adapted to the prevailing culture. The ancient Romans ate only one meal a day, while the Industrial Revolution spurred the popularity of breakfast. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 52% of Americans said they're usually trying to do two or more things at once. Given the shifts in our modern lifestyles, it's clear that smaller, more frequent meals are most beneficial.

There are many health benefits to snacking. According to nutritionist Vandita Jain, 'Keeping long gaps in between meals can lead to low energy.' The Cleveland Clinic backs up this claim, saying frequent smaller meals 'can aid in satisfying the appetite, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and providing nutrients to the body.' The increased energy from the consistent intake of nutrients can help us better manage our stress, happiness, and well-being. Additionally, studies have shown that nutrient-dense foods near bedtime can increase the quality of sleep. And with better sleep comes improved immune systems, moods, and memory.

America has a weight problem. According to the CDC, 42% of Americans are obese. Researchers have found those who eat smaller, more frequent meals are healthier. In addition, they typically avoid alcohol with meals, a contributing factor to weight gain. Conversely, three-meals-a-day group(s) reported 'higher levels of hunger and an increased desire to eat and, thus, a tendency to gain weight.' As Americans weigh and work more than ever, the easy preparation and consumption of smaller meals saves valuable time and can have exponential health benefits.

Samir (Big Meals)

We have all heard the phrase 'there are those who live to eat, and those who eat to live.' However, no matter which approach one chooses, eating three meals a day is better than spending the day snacking.

Conventional wisdom dictates that nothing beats the convenience and accessibility of having three square meals a day, especially with busy lifestyles all around.

Registered dietitian Martha McKittrick says that three regular big meals are perfect for those with portion control issues. Fewer meal times mean fewer opportunities to overindulge.

This line of argument is further supported by Dr. Valter Longo, who believes that most people underestimate the calories they are about to consume. Additionally, Dr. Longo states that eating fewer meals means prioritizing disease avoidance, lifespan, and weight loss, saying, 'Even three meals might be too much.'

One study by Cornell University found that skipping breakfast means fewer overall calories. And for those who are weight conscious, the study reinforced that 'If you decrease the number of occasions to eat, your total calorie intake goes down.'

Additionally, the more you snack, the higher the chance that junk food will make it into your daily diet, as meals usually do not incorporate so-called 'empty calories.' 

There is a persistent myth that big meals lead to extremely volatile blood sugar levels, a worrying prospect for diabetic patients. However, several scientists have debunked it. Three big meals are enough 'to send a signal to the body that it doesn't have to store calories,' according to Noralyn Mills, spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association.

Grazing and snacking throughout the day simply won't provide the framework for healthy eating that most people require. 

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