It’s no wonder people get confused about nutrition and what to eat or not eat. It seems like the advice changes every week. That’s why I’m such a fan of experimenting to find out what works best for YOUR body.
At the same time, I like to look at the science and how the body works and use that to optimize what I do and the recommendations I make.
For the past 20 or 30 years (I don’t remember how long… ha!), we’ve been told to eat 5-6 small meals a day. The theory is that it helps us to stay full, thereby avoiding snacking on junk food and that it helps to manage blood sugar. But is this true?
For most people, staying full definitely can help to reduce the urge to snack. We all know not to go to the grocery store when hungry because we’ll buy a bunch of stuff we don’t need. We just have a bit more willpower when we’re not hungry.
The blood sugar balance is what concerns me more. MOST Americans have some measure of blood sugar dysregulation.
Quick lesson in how blood sugar balance works in the body: You eat something, glucose (sugar) molecules get into the bloodstream, and the pancreas secretes insulin to move the glucose out of the blood and into either the liver or skeletal muscles. The body always wants some glucose in the bloodstream, but not too much or too little, so it’s always looking for that balance. When glucose gets too low, the body pulls it back out of the liver or muscles and into the bloodstream.
So let’s take a look at how we get out of balance. There’s hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance and eventually to Type 2 Diabetes, which is becoming so common that people don’t really acknowledge how serious it actually is.
And there’s hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can happen either in response to blood sugar getting too high and the body overshooting the mark in how much it tries to store, or it can happen when the body is unable to pull glucose out of the liver or muscles fast enough to keep balance. Some symptoms of hypoglycemia include afternoon fatigue, waking up during the night and not being able to get back to sleep, getting the shakes or “hangry” if you go too long between meals.
Which brings us back around to the idea of 5-6 small meals a day or 3 large ones with nothing in between? And the answer is… it depends. In my mind, we’d all ideally like to get to 3 meals a day with nothing in between, but depending on the level of blood sugar dysregulation, it may take a little time to get there.
I’ll share some of my own experience. In around 2004, my blood sugar was extremely dysregulated, due to a combination of poor diet and major stress. Yes, stress is a big contributor to blood sugar dysregulation, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice to say, though, I was a mess. I decided to follow a food program that advocated for 3 super healthy, nutrient dense meals a day with nothing in between, but I just couldn’t do it. In the beginning, I had to have small protein snacks in the morning, in mid-afternoon and before bed, otherwise, I’d get foggy-headed, shaky and at night, unable to sleep. After a few weeks, I was able to eliminate the mid-morning snack. Then, after a bit more time, the afternoon one. It took a long time before my body was able to go through the night without the before bed snack, but in time, I was able to do that too. It’s important to note that I was eating a TON of vegetables – like 5 cups a day, and avoiding sugar and processed and junk foods. The veggies give the body the nutrition it needs to function properly and sugar, processed and junk foods interfere in that process.
And what are the benefits of eating only 3 meals a day without snacking? Well, first, it’s just easier! I’m not driven to stop what I’m doing to either have something to eat or suffer the consequences. And from the body’s perspective, there are a few things:
- You avoid the strain on the pancreas of constantly having to secrete insulin and try to get the right balance. When the pancreas gets tired, both digestion and blood sugar balance suffer.
- The body gets a rest from digestion, which is a pretty intensive process, and can instead concentrate on other healing activity, especially at night.
- The adrenals, which are major players in the stress response and in hormonal balance, are left to do that work instead of having to do their part in blood sugar regulation.
- The liver isn’t working all the time to release glucose, so it stays free to do the work of detoxification and keeping the body clean
- All of this affects fat burning and weight. This is one of the reasons why intermittent fasting works – the body isn’t spending all of its energy on digestion and blood sugar management.
There’s some pretty heavy science in all of this, but I personally advocate working toward 3 really nutritious, filling meals a day and avoid the constant snacking. Plus, for most of us, snacking involves eating foods that don’t really support us, so it’s not helpful anyway.
So, here are some things to think about:
- What are my eating habits like now? Am I eating mostly nutrient dense foods (healthy proteins like meat, eggs, beans, etc., fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds and healthy fats) or are most of my foods coming from packages, a fryer or a drive-through? Make any necessary adjustments to move more toward a whole food diet and eat less processed food.
- How do I do when going several hours without eating? Do I get shaky, light-headed or irritable? If so, some dietary changes could help. Go slowly with these to give your body time to adjust.
- Am I under a lot of stress? (I know, I know, it’s 2020…) What am I doing to try to manage that stress? Am I finding joy and gratitude in each day or just trying to get through? Try to spend a little time outside in nature, use a meditation app for quiet time and do some moderate intensity exercise (this also helps with blood sugar regulation by moving glucose out of the muscles and making room for more).
Simple changes can make a big difference in how you feel and your body will thank you!