Archive for May, 2010

How many times a day should we eat?

May 26, 2010

I stated in my last post that we cannot trust “hunger” as a cue for when to eat. But how do we know when it IS time to eat?  For me, and I suspect for many others, the three-meals-a-day “rule” works well.  In fact, I believe that for most people who struggle with weight control, eating more often, “grazing,” or snacking between meals only adds to the problem.

Now, many of you believe that six or more small meals per day, or three meals plus two or three snacks, is best (e.g., see comment by Personal Trainer on my last post).  And for some people there is a medical reason for eating more often than three times per day (e.g., people with dyspepsia, GERD, hypoglycemia, etc.).  Some of these medical indications are valid, and some are not.  I won’t get into that here.  What I do know is that the more we snack, the more likely we are to consume excess calories (see this research report).

A survey reported this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in the thirty years between the 1970s to the early 2000s, for adults and children, the average time between eating occasions shrank by one hour (most recently, 3 hours apart for adults and 3.5 hours apart for children).  Daily calories for both groups increased from roughly 2,090 in the 1970s to 2500 in the 2003 – 2006 period.

Calories from snacks more than doubled: for adults, from 200 calories per day in the 1970s to 470 calories in the recent time period; for children, from 240 to 500.  A significant portion of snack calories came from beverages.  It can be assumed that these numbers are underestimates, since surveys usually under-report the number of calories consumed.  [The above research was described in the May 2010 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter]

It makes sense to me that the more often one eats, the more one is exposed to temptation and calories.  Also, we know that “willpower fatigue” occurs, so that the more often we have to decide what and how much to eat, the less “willpower” we are left with by the end of the day.

One known cause of overeating, which is also closely related to snacking, is “emotional eating.”  The solution to that problem is mindful eating, plus tending to emotional issues in a more appropriate way.

Personally, one of the most effective things I have done over the years to maintain my weight in a healthy range is to eliminate snacking.  It takes some getting used to — for example, eating dessert just before bed was a long time habit for me — but it really makes a difference.  And I haven’t developed hypoglycemia, insomnia, or any other health problem as a result.

If eating three daily meals (assuming the portions are reasonable and the food is mostly “healthy”) works to maintain weight, would two meals be even better?  Apparently not, according to several studies.  People who skip breakfast, for example, tend to weigh more than people who don’t.

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Why “Eat only when you’re hungry” won’t work

May 15, 2010

During a recent social event, the conversation turned to weight loss and dieting. One of the women said she read a new book and it had “the answer” to her problem of weight gain: eat only when you’re hungry.  Many books and weight loss plans, in fact, emphasize this point, offering various tips and methods to define “hungry” and help the reader learn what kind of hunger, exactly, they should satisfy and what kinds they should ignore.  The worst books (in my opinion) give the message that people gain weight because of various psychological or “spiritual” hungers that we try to assuage with food.  There is little to no consistent science to back up these claims, and I believe the message does much harm, because it implies an almost magical answer to the problem  of overeating.  When it inevitably fails to work, the victim of this propaganda is left with yet another cycle of failed dieting and increased weight.

As recently as hundreds of years ago, most people did need hunger as a cue to begin eating, because their days were full of physical labor and food was not always readily available.  But, in recent decades, this situation has changed dramatically.  Now, most have relatively low levels of physical activity and the availability of food has increased exponentially — to the point where there is a glut of high calorie, low cost “food” in our faces continually.  We rarely get hungry in the old sense of the word, because these cleverly marketed and subsidized foods (high in sugar, salt and/or fat) overwhelm our biological regulatory systems.  Instead, we develop cravings and hungers triggered by environmental cues and implanted “beliefs” from our culture, no longer based on biological requirements.  In a sense, we get “addicted” to unhealthy foods and lose our ability to trust our hunger.

So, what can we do?  Easy — and difficult.  Train ourselves to ignore these contrived temptations; limit our exposure to them (most importantly, protect our children from them!).  Learn what a healthy lifestyle looks like and adopt it.  Avoid frequently eating “addictive” foods containing large amounts of  sugar, salt and fat.  And advocate, loudly and often, for changes in our culture so that fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods are cheaper and more available than the junk food that now receives so many economic advantages.

For more information and tips, check out these links:

Food Industry Pursues the Strategy of Big Tobacco

Coping with the obesity epidemic

Ending overeating

Overeating leads to more overeating

What does 200 calories look like?

Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself

Mindful eating vs. mindless munching

Weight Management for Your Life: Ten Steps to Prepare You for Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle

I recommend Nutrition Action Health Letter, available by subscription from the non-profit CSPI (regarding today’s post: see the May, 2010, cover story “How the Food Industry Drives Us to Eat” featuring an interview with Yale’s Dr. Kelly Brownell).

P.S.  I have not posted in the last 3 months for several reasons, one of which is having surgery and recovering.  I’m fine now, though.