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Three squares per day or a bunch of snacks? Answer: It depends

Three square meals or five small ones…which is better?

While there are many different diets available out there, one question comes up consistently.

It is a question that many people in the nutrition realm have tossed back and forth: Which is healthier… three square meals a day or five small ones? Which one is more likely to promote health?

The answer honestly depends on an individual’s health needs, as well as their overall health goals.

Each may be more appropriate, but for different people based on their digestions, blood sugar control and weight loss/gain goals.

Five to six small meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner with snacks between meals) can have benefits for several types of people: those with digestive issues or heart burn, pregnant or nursing mothers, the elderly or those with a decreased appetite, kids, diabetics on medication and people with increased caloric needs due to health problems like COPD or cancer.

The benefits for the above mentioned are fairly simple; the small, frequent meals decrease the immediate digestive load on a person’s system.

For a person with COPD who has difficulty breathing or a pregnant mom who has less room in her expanding belly, smaller meals are simply more manageable and comfortable. Small meals also enable a person to sneak in more calories if they need to.

Diabetics or people with hypoglycemia can also benefit from more frequent eating since their blood sugar is not properly regulated.

The issue of blood sugar is also related to why snacks have been touted as friend of weight loss.

Erratic blood sugar can leave a person “hangry” (hungry plus angry) and vulnerable to overeating.  Eating frequently keeps you from feeling crazy hungry… or so goes the thinking.

The idea of and perhaps the “need” for snacks may also have been popularized by our own food culture.

If you think about it, less-developed cultures, as well as the centuries of cultures before us, haven’t had “snacks.” I am not even speaking of the “primal” societies/cultures that the paleo movement refers to. I am talking about established people groups and cultures that have lasted over the course of time.

While I am not suggesting that the scarcity of food or the difficulty obtaining it (which was a reality for many cultures ) is a desirable thing, I am suggesting that the majority of humans have been able to thrive on less than five small meals a day.

While there are some who may benefit from small, frequent meals, others simply don’t.

For those who really enjoy “volume eating,” frequent snacking and small portion sizes may be rather unrealistic.  Also, for those who tend to struggle with making wise food choices and who have foods that trigger overeating, snacking can present too many tempting opportunities.

There is no shame in admitting you might be one of those people. As a foodie myself, I have to admit that my love for cooking and trying new foods can lead me to overeating if I allow myself too frequent eating opportunities!

Despite other trains of thought, the three-a-day approach to meals may actually prove beneficial to those who aim at weight loss.

Blood sugars have a chance to stabilize, stomachs have a chance to feel full and learn what being “satisfied’ mean.

People also learn what specific foods keep them satisfied longer. In the long run, three reasonable meals can help prevent overeating. The trick also comes down to WHAT your meals are made of.

I should clarify that when I say “three meals a day,” I am not saying “three feasts a day” or “three gorge sessions.” The three meals are satisfying, not gluttonous. There is a difference!

One should feel reasonably full, but not stuffed or uncomfortable. You know it is enough when you start getting hungry (but not famished) around when it is time to eat again.

Because each larger meal provides enough satisfaction for several hours, people are liberated to not worry about food (what it will be or how they will store it … a real problem for people in certain jobs).

While the potential to overeat is still there (just as it is when eating snacks), it can easily be managed by smart food choices and learning what satisfied feels like.

So which should you choose: small, frequent meals or fewer, larger ones? I have promoted both at different times. In fact I still do, depending on what a person’s needs are.

I do think it is worth pondering why snacking may be given so much emphasis in our culture. Is it because we actually need it or is it because our food choices are so poor, our blood sugar is so off, and our appetites are so stimulated that we “must” eat every two hours?

I don’t have the answer for YOU specifically, but I welcome you to find it for yourself.  Consider your health needs and health goals.  You may find that it changes from time to time and that is 100 percent OK.

If you are a diabetic who has difficulty managing your blood sugars, then it is worth adding in or readjusting the snacks in your day. If you are struggling to lose weight then perhaps you might look at if you are over-snacking.

Whatever your style of eating turns out to be, I always recommend two basic principles: begin with water and start each meal with veggies.

Fellow Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ilana Mulstein says it well in her trademarked saying: “Water first, veggies most!”

If you can drink two cups of water 30 minutes prior to eating (or when you feel the hunger urge coming on) and then make at least two of your meals mostly veggies, you will likely find improvements in your health that leave you nourished and satisfied.

– Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.