Revealed: Is Grazing Really Better Than 3 Square Meals?

For decades now, the conventional advice from trainers and weight loss specialists has been this: “Eat three meals a day plus two snacks.”

The big question is whether or not it’s true.

And the answer…. (drum roll and envelope please).. is..

Sometimes. But not always. Many people do absolutely great on three meals a day with no snacks, and sometimes, on some days- (gasp)- even two.

See, the conventional advice was built upon the “truth” that “grazing” is always a better eating strategy for weight loss than eating three (or, god forbid, two) “solid” meals a day. Eating three meals and two snacks was supposed to keep your blood sugar even throughout the day, keeping cravings at bay.

Well, maybe. But the truth of the matter is that people are far more variable and individual than we often acknowledge. And there’s a downside to the “five meals a day” theory, a downside that may affect some people more than others.

For one thing, eating every two hours guarantees that your insulin is going to go up five times a day instead of, say, three. For many people, that means more hunger not less. Insulin is not only the “fat storage” hormone, it’s also the “hunger” hormone. In fact, the whole “Carbohydrate Addicts Diet” got started when one of its creators, a then very-overweight Rachel Heller, found that she experienced a lot less hunger on one particularly busy day when she “forgot” to eat.

“Three meals a day”- each with a beginning and an end- is making a comeback as a weight loss strategy, snacking be damned. Celebrity nutritionist JJ Virgin, PhD, now advocates eating three meals a day, the first meal within an hour of waking up and the last meal at least three hours before bed. And recent research has demonstrated- at least in rats- that “intermittent fasting” actually has some major health benefits.

The point here is not that the “old” information was wrong and the “new information” is right. The point is that there are huge individual differences in how we respond to food, and no one strategy- including the “five meals a day” strategy- works for everyone. We need to stop blindly following “conventional wisdom” and start paying attention to our individual differences when it comes to weight loss. (In fact, that’s not a bad strategy for everything, but that’s another column.)

Ellen Langer, the great Harvard psychologist whose book, “Mindfulness” has been translated into 15 languages and whose work I discussed in the above story, puts it brilliantly when she says that “certainty” is the enemy of mindfulness. When we blindly follow a strategy- for weight loss or for anything else- we often stop paying attention to the individual cues that tell us whether it’s the right thing to do in our particular situation. “Certainty is a cruel mindset”, she writes. “It is uncertainty that we need to embrace, particularly about our health. If we do so, the payoff is that we create choices and the opportunity to exercise control over our lives”.

So if three meals and two snacks works for you, great. Keep it up and carry on! But if it’s not working, don’t assume it’s because there’s something wrong with you. It just might be that you need to try a different strategy.

And three meals a day- each with a beginning and an end point, and with no “snacking” in between- might be one technique worth trying.

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24 Comments

  1. Miles

    Interesting and informative. I’ve followed your blog for a while (and have purchased three of your books!) As a personal trainer I spend a good amount of time talking with my clients about nutrition. I personally lost close to 100 lbs on the 3 meals/2 snacks plan but this is a nice reminder that every individual is different and it’s important to meet each client where they actually are.

    Reply
  2. Mindy

    If you are good at listening to your hunger signs, should you eat still eat every 2-3 hours if you are not hungry at all? For instance, let’s say you ate a higher fat/protein meal and your blood sugar is still high enough that you don’t feel hungry. Would you still recommend eating the snack at that time or wait a little while longer. It would seem to me that you should wait to eat to avoid overeating, just making sure that you eat before you are “too” hungry. Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Dr. Jonny

      Hi Mindy

      No, quite the opposite. My point in the article is that that advice is not necessarily right for everyone. Why follow it slavishly? You might be better with just 3 meals a day.

      warmly
      jb

      Reply
  3. Mike

    I thought one of the main reasons for grazing, besides keeping insulin levels more balanced, was that it also keeps the metabolism higher throughout the day.

    Reply
  4. Patty

    Feels great to read wise articles/messages from wise mentors.
    (Jonny Bowden, is wise.) I’m going to get the Mindfulness book by Ellen Langer, thank you for mentioning her.

    Patty

    Reply
  5. Alvin

    I usually eat 3 x/day, with snacks in between.

    BUT, my body lets me know. I eat slowly, and chew thoroughly, giving
    my body enough time to know if it’s had enough.

    If my body says enough, I won’t slavishly finish what’s on the plate.

    Some days I may skip a meal; some days I may have extra snacks.

    There are times when I’ll eat out of necessity rather than appetite; and at such times I’ll eat quite a bit less than usual.

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth Zaleski

    I find it very helpful to graze – on that packet of soy bean sprouts, on blueberries, on sliced cucumber, on cherry tomatoes, and all those very healthy foods that are not calorie high but are very nutritious. Guess who has marvellous skin and hair in her late 60’s, and no weight problem, no stiffness or pain? The problem is the fella in my life – he always feels starved without that three meals a day routine!

    Reply
    • Forest Adelsmann

      Since when have soy bean sprouts been healthy?

      Reply
  7. planetqueen

    I tried ‘grazing’ and it defnitely does not work for me. I do best eating four times a day – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late-afternoon snack so I’m not starving between lunch and dinner. When my husband and i go on vacation, we usually eat only two meals a day – a late breakfast and an early dinner. Since restaurant meals are so high in calories (and so huge – even when you’re watching your portions), this works very well for us. And unlike a lot of people I know, I tend to lose weight when I’m on vacation.

    Reply
    • Dr. Jonny

      I’m with you and I do pretty much the same thing on vacation. By the way an additional reason people often lose weight on vacations despite eating more food than they think they should is that their stress hormones are lowered!

      Warmly
      jb

      Reply
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  16. Laurie

    I have gone from eating often throughout the day to 3 meals a day with nothing after dinner. I did not do this to loose weight, as I was not overweight before. However, within 3 months I have gone from a size 10 to a size 6 (I’m 5’7″). I have also done away with sweets, but I eat very well at mealtimes and don’t particularly watch my caloric intake. It was hard at first to give up the grazing and mindless eating, but within a month, it was totally ingrained. I am always hungry when I eat, whereas I almost never was before, so of course I enjoy my food much more now. I feel better than I ever have before (I’m 61 years old) and have tons of energy and require less sleep.

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    To maintain my intense workouts and weight, I try to eat about 3,500 calories a day. You can’t get to that many calories without a lot of carbs. I’m wondering if I need to eat every 1.5 hours instead of every 2.5-3.0 hours in order to prevent issues with what I’m assuming is huge glycemic loads. I’m not certain though if it’s really an issue.

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