COLUMN: Comparing grazing and fasting

The fear with eating three meals a day was that people were getting quite hungry in the long intervals

Since the late 1990’s there has been a school of thought that endorses abandoning the traditional three meals a day in favour of numerous intermittent meals.

The reasoning behind this idea is that in order to ward off hunger and ultimately allow people to eat less by ‘grazing’ when they start to feel hungry during the day, they will lose weight more easily than three ‘large’ meals.

But is this really true? What are the most recent studies showing?

The fear with eating three meals a day was that people were getting quite hungry in the long interval between meals and would tend to overeat once mealtime arrived.

It would also spike insulin levels and make people insulin-resistant, thus promoting calorie storage in the form of fat. This would produce weight gain and promote long-term obesity and pre-diabetes.

A 2012 study in a journal called Cell Metabolism was done with mice in order to determine if longer bouts of time between meals promoted or prevented obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

They fed all subjects a high fat diet (60 per cent of calories from fat).

The diet was meant to simulate human’s high fat, typical junk-food diet but changed the interval of feeding two different groups.

One group fed frequently throughout the day when they wanted, and the other group was on a time-restricted interval of eight hours between feedings.

The ‘grazing’ group developed weight gain, and a host of other problems including high blood glucose markers, hypertension, and liver disease. The eight-hour fasting group, after just over three months of the study weighed 28% less than the grazing group and were fitter as well.

The apparent downside to ‘grazing’ according to researchers is that frequent feeding throughout the day interrupts our regular diurnal rhythms that were developed since paleolithic times where we probably ate only once or twice a day at most. And a potential practical problem with grazing can be regulating the total number of calories just as it can be with three meals a day.

This idea of intermittent fasting has shown to work in a few recent studies but one must be careful with so few studies done. Many people have done well losing weight, staying fit and healthy by grazing throughout the day while many others have done just as well with three square meals a day. In the end watching total calorie intake, quality of food and getting enough regular exercise is probably far more important than the minutiae of frequency of meals or other intricate methods of dieting like food-combining. When I was a kid growing up we ate three meals a day, supplemented with a lot of grazing (with every kind of food). My family and friends were always playing in the yard or practising and playing sports for as much as two or three hours a day, sometimes more. In that situation our bodies were crying out for food all the time and we were very fit and at our ideal weights. It’s harder for adults to get that much exercise but most adults get very little or no regular exercise at all. In the end, watching total calorie intake and making sure you get enough exercise is the best general plan that has a proven track-record.

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