You know those days when it feels like you can never really stop eating? Sure, it might be an issue if you’re near-constant munching consists of the leftover donut holes and chocolate-covered almonds from the office kitchen, but grazing throughout the day can be a totally okay—and quite healthy—way to eat.
In fact, “eating more regularly can positively influence your metabolism, physical and mental energy levels, productivity, mood, and appetite later on,” says Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. Of course, what you’re eating matters (we’ll get to that). Do it right and you may notice that eating smaller, more frequent meals could be just the mind and body-boosting routine change you need.
Read up on what our go-to nutritionists have to say about the mini-meal way of life—and how to make it work for you.
Americans’ long-held ‘three square meals a day’ attitude towards eating often means people eat a lot at once. “We love big portions,” says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. Yet when we have so much food in front of us at a time, we often eat more than we need, and even more than we want—setting us up for bloating and food comas in the short-term and weight gain in the long-term.
Plus, when we eat a full day’s-worth of calories in just a few sittings and go long periods of time without eating, our blood sugar drops, leaving us tired and more likely to reach for unhealthy foods (and too much of them), Rizzo says.
That’s where ‘grazing,’ or eating a bunch of mini-meals throughout the day instead of a few big ones, comes in handy. Grazers swap breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks) for six balanced snacks throughout the day, says Rizzo. For example: Someone who eats about 2,000 calories a day would munch on six 330-ish calorie snacks instead of three 660-ish calorie meals.
One of the biggest potential benefits of eating frequently is that it can help keep blood sugar levels stable,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. In fact, research has even linked a ‘grazing’ eating style with lower fasting insulin levels—an indicator of healthy blood sugar function and metabolism. Meanwhile, the blood sugar roller-coaster often associated with infrequent meals and giant portions can contribute to weight gain and blood sugar control issues, like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, over time, says Rizzo.
Stable blood sugar also helps us maintain steady energy levels and a balanced appetite throughout the day, making us less likely to impulse-eat foods that are high in sugar, fat, and sodium (like a sleeve of sandwich cookies or nacho cheese chips) and better able to maintain or lose weight, says Rizzo.
Case in point: One study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that people who ate smaller, more frequent meals ate fewer total calories, had lower BMIs, and were more likely to choose healthy foods compared to those who ate fewer, larger meals.
Finally, eating more frequently can also make you happier. How? The drops in blood sugar that occur when you go hours without eating signal your body to release stress-related hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), which can contribute to sleep and mood issues. The more under-control these hormones are, the more likely you are to feel energized during the day and able to rest well at night. Plus, eating often supplies the brain with a steady stream of glucose, helping to bolster mental sharpness and productivity. All good things for both your work life and personal life!
Issues To Look Out For
First and foremost, regardless of when you eat, what you eat is hugely important. If you’re grazing on refined or sugary foods, you miss out on the balance of fiber, fat, and protein your body needs and experience the blood sugar spike and crash that grazing is meant to prevent, says Jones. To be as blood sugar-friendly as possible, avoid refined foods that contain white flour or added sugar, and pair carbs with protein and healthy fats.
Grazing can also go awry if you focus more on the digital clock than your body clock. If you tell yourself you need to eat every two hours or so, you can easily fall out of touch with your natural hunger cues and end up falling into a pattern of overeating.
To keep your mini-meals in-line with your needs, divide your total calories up evenly and plan out mini-meals that contain a balance of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs from whole ingredients like nuts, fresh fruit, roasted chickpeas, and low-sugar yogurt, says Rizzo. This way you set yourself up for the right amount of nourishing munching.
Then, tune into your body and let your hunger and satiety levels guide your grazing. Eat when you feel hungry, but don’t wait until you’re ravenous, says Jones. After each mini-meal, you should feel satisfied but not super full. If you’re still hungry (or just want to keep eating), wait 20 minutes or so and reevaluate your body’s signals before doing so.