In previous columns, I have expressed my enthusiasm for frequent feeding. One benefit of spreading out our food intake during the day is that it helps to equalise the body’s biochemistry. Also, by reducing the risk of the appetite running riot, regular ingestion can help quell a tendency to overeat too. Recently, British scientists have attempted to add to our understanding of how pattern of eating may affect our physiology. The results of their research suggest that when it comes to the impact eating has on our health, time can be of the essence.
The study in question, published last December in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, assessed the effects of two distinct eating patterns in a group of overweight women. For two weeks, the women were asked to eat their normal diet, but to consume this as six discreet meals each day. During another two week spell, the women once again consumed their normal diet, but this time this was divided up into between three and nine portions during the day. The precise number of portions was prescribed by the researchers to ensure that the average number of daily meals or snacks was six (the same number feeds had during the other phase of the study). The design of this study enabled the researchers to assess what, if any, advantages regularity in food intake has over more chaotic consumption.
Throughout the study, participants undertook a series of tests which included a measurement of the ability of food to stimulate the body’s metabolism (known as the thermogenic effect of food or ‘TEF’). Compared to the irregular eating pattern, regular consumption of food was found to bring a significantly boost to the TEF. In addition, the individuals reported eating less when eating consistently. It is not uncommon for slimmers to skip the odd meal here of there. The findings of this recent study suggest that those planning to shed pounds would be best advised not to lose their lunch, or any other meal for that matter.
More regularised eating was also associated with lower levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – the type of cholesterol raised generally believed to raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. In addition, consistency in eating pattern led to a reduction in the amount of the hormone insulin secreted in response to food. This has important implications because lower levels of insulin in the long term would be expected to protect against a variety of conditions including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
I am not of the mind that individuals’ meal times should be strictly dictated by the clock, but some regularity in eating pattern does seem to be one of the keys to good health. In practice, individuals generally do well on three meals a day, with the addition of a snack of some raw nuts, seeds or dried fruit in the mid-late afternoon. Those who take breakfast early might want to supplement with a similar snack in the late morning too. For those wishing to optimise their well-being through dietary means, the evidence suggests that consistency is the order of the day.