Don’t graze unless you’re a cow, or want to look like one

I read a fascinating article in the HuffPost titled “Have American Parents Got It All Backwards?” It compared the eating habits of Americans to Koreans:

“In Korea… children are taught it is important to wait out their hunger until it is time for the whole family to sit down together and eat. Koreans do not believe it’s healthy to graze or eat alone, and they don’t tend to excuse bad behavior by blaming it on low blood sugar.

“Instead, children are taught that food is best enjoyed as a shared experience. All children eat the same things that adults do, just like they do in most countries in the world with robust food cultures. The result? Korean children are incredible eaters. They sit down to tables filled with vegetables of all sorts, broiled fish, meats, spicy pickled cabbage and healthy grains and soups at every meal.” (Read full article.)

It’s okay for children to wait for meals. It’s also okay for adults to wait for meals.

In most traditional societies around the world, people sit down for three meals a day. And they don’t snack much in between. The French are well known for their aversion to snacking. They consider it unhealthy. Likewise the Chinese and Japanese have traditionally not eaten snacks. (Unfortunately this is changing now for the younger generation, which will surely have a negative effect on people’s health.)

A recent study showed Americans get 26% of their total calories from snacks. This has increased from 13% in 1976. The French get 8% of their calories from snacks and the Chinese less than 1% – they essentially don’t snack at all.

But why do most diet experts tell us to eat “healthy” snacks?

In America and other western countries, many health experts are recommending we eat 6 to 8 small meals a day. The idea is to keep your blood sugar balanced by eating a snack whenever it starts to drop.

It’s no coincidence this started in the 1970s, around the same time experts started recommending a low fat diet. As people cut back on fat and increased carbohydrate, they found they were constantly hungry. This happens for most people when you consume too many carbs and too little healthy fat and protein. Your blood sugar responds with a spike and then crashes. Your body perceives that crash as hunger. It screams “I need sugar now!”

Once you start eating balanced meals, with enough protein and fat to supply a steady stream of energy for several hours, and also enough carbohydrate to meet your body’s needs, you should not experience this crash between meals. Regarding carbohydrate, we are all different in this regard. Some people can tolerate more carbs, while others need to restrict their carbs more drastically to keep their blood sugar stable. You need to experiment with this.

In my own experience, I never felt well when I followed the advice to eat frequent small meals. My blood sugar issues seemed to get worse, not better. My breakthrough came by making two radical changes. First, I ate a substantial breakfast, with enough protein and fat to give me sustained energy throughout the morning. Second, I quit all snacking, cold turkey.

It was difficult for a few days. But over the next 18 months I ate three balanced meals a day and no snacks. Eventually I loosened up slightly – but only a little. I still stick mainly to three meals and no snacks. But there are times when I choose to eat a snack, for example if I visit a friend and they have made some muffins and offer me one. I eat it an enjoy it. Of if my wife and I go out for coffee on a Sunday afternoon, I will often have a small snack to go along with the coffee. But it’s the exception, not the rule.

Most people today are reaching for snacks out of habit, not true hunger. This wreaks havoc on your blood sugar, your weight and your health over the long term.

It might sound cynical, but one reason I believe we are encouraged to keep snacking is due to commercial interests. Most nutrition studies are funded by the food industry. Even those done by universities and other supposedly independent bodies have to get their money from somewhere. Go to your supermarket and look at all the snack foods. There are huge commercial interests to keep us snacking.

What about studies that show it’s healthy to snack?

It’s true that under laboratory conditions, people who eat a controlled amount of calories in several small meals may metabolize them more efficiently than those who eat the same amount of calories in only three meals. Many experts have latched onto these studies as the basis for advising 6 – 8 small meals a day.

But in real life, outside a laboratory, it’s quite different. People who eat snacks in addition to three main meals a day end up eating more food – usually quite a bit more food – and their blood sugar is continually going up and down with every snack.

Even if you decided to count every calorie and wanted to “graze” to get the supposed benefits, it’s not such a good idea. Counting calories and eating frequent small meals has you thinking about food all day long. This simply isn’t healthy. And it’s not a normal way for humans to behave.

More thoughts on what makes a balanced meal

If you decide to eat only three meals a day, you might find initially you fail, due to getting ravenous 2 or 3 hours after a meal. The reason for this is because you have not eaten a balanced meal. This usually happens if you are following some kind of fad diet.

I get emails from people saying they need to snack because they will faint from hunger if they don’t. When I ask what they are eating at meal times, it’s usually something like skinless chicken breast, broccoli and sweet potatoes; or omlette and salad. They then explain they are following the AIP diet, or the GAPS diet, or the SCD diet or something similar because that’s all they can eat.

I need to stress, a balanced meal should contain adequate protein, fat and carbohydrate. Since we are all different, you need to experiment to find the right balance for you. But when you find that correct balance, you will be able to go 5 or 6 hours after a meal without feeling hungry. That’s normal. It’s what you should aim for.

If you fail initially, don’t despair. You might need to eat more of certain foods that you are fearful of. But the bottom line is, if you can’t survive from one meal to the next without fainting from hunger, then you are not eating a balanced meal.

I want to finish with a word about low carb diets. I’ve been reading some interesting books this week on the subject. There’s a trend towards low carb eating, as more people realize the harmful effects of low fat diets. There’s paleo, keto and now the carnivore diet where you eat only meat and eggs.

I have always been against eating sugar and other refined carbohydrates. So I’m in agreement with the low carb movement in that regard. But I find it hard to accept that bread, the Biblical “staff of life” is bad for you. People have been eating bread for thousands of years.

I’m not saying you should eat a ton of bread or other carbohydrates. You need to experiment to see how you feel with different amounts. But consider this. People throughout Asia and European countries such as France, Italy and Greece, where they have much lower rates of obesity and chronic disease than in America, consume at least 50% of their calories from carbohydrates.

What these cultures don’t eat much of is sugar. They also eat meals together around a table and relax afterwards. They eat very few snacks. Sound familiar?

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