Since the 1980s, when fitness took a huge leap forward with the inclusion of eating styles, the debate between grazing and eating three squares has continued to rage. Mindful eating or intuitive eating compliments the concept of grazing - eating five of six small meals a day rather than sitting down to three larger meals. The idea is to learn to be aware of how your body responds to food and hunger.
Why Are You Eating?
The question asked by grazing proponents is, "Are you eating because you're hungry or because it's time to eat?" Behind the question is the thought that if we're eating because it's dinner time then we're programmed to respond to a certain social standard that allows time for other things in life, like work and play. But, do our bodies really need the food then? The argument is furthered by the idea that our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely grazed rather than sat down to a regular meal, picking berries and eating herbs to satisfy hunger as the day wore on. Grazers are set free from the archaic rigidness of sitting together as a group and eating and depend upon their instincts to eat when and what they like.
The Value to Grazing
Certainly there is evidence to support the concept that eating more often throughout the day is healthier, especially in terms of preventing the kind of hunger that leads to gorging at the end of the day. It is also a factor in maintaining blood sugar control and providing energy for active people. A study done at the University of Akron, Ohio, of the eating habits of 665 overweight or obese subjects showed there was no significant increase in the metabolism of the subjects - which is something grazing is purported to do - it did show that there was an indirect relationship between the number of calories eaten and the frequency with which they ate. What that boils down to is the more frequently we eat smaller meals, the fewer calories we tend to ingest.
Additionally, people who eat frequent smaller meals tend to eat a wider variety of nutrients than those who eat fewer big meals. Grazing in a healthy way does not mean snacking on pretzels or chips, it means planned meals and snacks that provide variety and allow less room for gaps in nutrition in the diet. When there are frequent meals, there is more of a tendency to hit all of the nutritional targets throughout the day instead of trying to get them in at one time.
Don't Snack - You'll Spoil Your Dinner
Now, having said all of that, grazing may be great for some people, especially those who are really active, but it definitely isn't for everyone. Women with emotional eating issues, like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder need the structure of three meals a day. In order to overcome their disorders, women suffering with these problems need strict social and external guidelines for "normal" eating. The idea of "mindful eating" is too abstract for these women because they are so out-of-touch with their bodies' signals for hunger due to confused emotions.
A Nation Out-of-Control
With the glut of magazines telling us what diet to ascribe to and when to eat, it's little wonder the Western world has, as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma says, our "national eating disorder." He goes on to suggest that we could all use the structure of three communal meals a day, where everyone sits down together and enjoys food and fellowship, to bring us back to normal eating patterns. Food, for centuries, has been tied to rituals and social mores that provided nutritional guidelines and checks on gorging and overeating. The grazing concept pulled the plug on these standards and the checks and balances have been lost. Empty calories fool the palate into overeating and continual snacking has provided the world with obesity.
The fact is that there is not a single set of rules that will provide the right answer for everyone. Our 21st Century lifestyle tends to be 24/7 and more women work outside of the home, making structured eating less available to many families. The bottom line in both concepts, grazing and communal meals is to be mindful of what you are eating, savor the food and enjoy the company of fellow eaters.