The Myth of Eating 5-6 Small Meals A Day October 26 2014

By Lorene Sauro, RHN

There is a current nutrition trend that encourages everyone to eat 5-6 small meals a day. It is called “grazing” similar to how cows and horses feed themselves which makes a lot of sense for them but then they really don’t have anything else to do. Also, it is how people assume our ancestors ate back when they were hunting and gathering. This is actually not true. Our ancestors would take advantage of large amounts of foods when they had it and anthropologists have even discovered how humans caught large animals without any weapons. I won’t go into the details of this but it involved a lot of running – hours and hours of running, which apparently we, as humans, are specifically designed for. We were clearly not designed for speed but as for distance? Apparently we are the champs. That’s right – we are all descended from joggers.

This information corrects two myths. We definitely did not start out as vegetarians, as some people have suggested, since we were not doing all that running chasing plants. And, more importantly for this discussion, our ancestors were not stopping to have small meals throughout the day as they pursued their prey. Yet, they had enough energy and stamina to run for hours. This means biologically our bodies, or at least their bodies, were designed to go without eating for a number of hours.
Last week I was moaning about the cruelty of time – it’s too fast and we often have trouble keeping up with it. So, I am not in favour of any suggestion that calls for any unnecessary repetition. Even though they say that repetition is the key to mastering a skill, we cannot seem to master eating, no matter how often we do it.

There is a logical reason for eating 5-6 small meals throughout the day. Smaller meals are easier to digest, help prevent overeating in one sitting and, done at least every two-three hours, will deliver a consistent source of energy. This is an important consideration, as we are all highly stressed and we burn carbohydrates like crazy as a result. Receiving a steady, small supply of carbs into the bloodstream throughout the day will prevent blood sugar highs and lows, reduce fatigue, headaches, crankiness and mood swings; helping us deal with stress. This is all good, right? So it would seem like the answer is obvious. We should graze through the day eating at least 5-6 times, especially fibre-filled carbohydrates, which can help regulate the entry of glucose into the bloodstream.

But what if you are not someone who overeats at a meal and you know the right portion for you? What if your decision to eat is made based on food groups that you already know you need to feel your best? And what if, when you eat a proper meal, your energy is sustained for at least 6 hours? Does it make any sense to eat 5-6 smaller meals a day? No it doesn’t.
In this scenario, we are telling those who know how to eat properly that we “the nutrition experts” know better than they do about their stomachs. More importantly, we are telling them to spend more time eating when they could be doing something else more productive and possibly causing them more stress because, apparently, remembering to eat is stressful.

The biggest problem with recommending 5-6 meals a day is the failure to understand how people function through the day. Thirty to sixty percent of all employees either skip lunch or eat a poor version of it at their desk. So, if the three-meals-a-day people are not even getting their lunch because they are busy, how likely do you think it will be that anyone will fit another two meals into their day, even if they are small? They won’t. This will cause them to continue to have an issue with blood sugar and energy levels. If they consume a proper amount when they do eat, they will have a better chance for the food to sustain them through the day. It is a myth that we, if healthy, need to eat every 2-3 hours. A healthy body has no problem maintaining energy and sugar levels and we need to develop the knowledge specific to our bodies so we can function properly.

So, what is the answer? People need to find the right food in the right combination for them to sustain their energy. Eating three proper meals, easier to fit into a busy day, is the best place to start. Determining the right portion size and chewing properly so proper digestion can occur, is also key. However, people also need to carry snacks with them and need to be taught to recognize the signal to eat; before the blood sugar drops. This way people will have the security of a snack available, if needed but they will also have had a meal that was substantial enough to help sustain them as they go through the day. In conclusion, if you like eating 5-6 small meals a day, go for it. If not, do not worry about and eat when you want – just make sure you are not over hungry and you are making the choices that work best for you.