The seemingly endless debate among nutritionists regarding the number of times you should eat each day to maintain optimal health has not created anything like a clear, scientific consensus. Some argue that the traditional “three square meals a day” is the better option; others contend equally forcefully, that eating many, smaller meals produce better health results.
The answer, according to the American Hearth Association, is it depends. Many factors can affect this and the number of meals you eat per day are less important than the kind of foods you consume.
What works for one person doesn’t necessary work for another. How many times you should eat each day depends not only on what you eat, but also on how hungry you become between meals. People whose hunger pangs start two hours after lunch, and who don’t meet that need with an in-between-meal snack, are more likely to binge at dinner. In this instance, smaller, more frequent meals could be beneficial because it can help the eater learn how to limit their intake at each meal and anticipate the next.
If You Must Snack, Snack Well
If you’re one of those people who start clock-watching mid-afternoon while your coworkers seem still sated from lunch, it’s better to eat a snack to avoid overeating at dinner. The operative question isn’t whether you should under these circumstances snack, but rather what that snack consist of.
If you wait until your hunger has overwhelmed your better judgment, there’s a good chance your snacks will be unhealthy. Foods rich in fat, salt and sugar which nutritionists across the board agree are bad for your weight, your heart, and your overall health, might be the first thing you reach for. If you satiate your hunger before it gets out of control, the chances of you being clear-minded to choose a healthy snack are higher.
So what exactly constitutes as a healthy snack?
For a snack to be considered healthy, it should satisfy two conditions: (1) it should restrain your hunger until the next time you eat; and (2) it should contribute, not be detrimental, to your health. According to AHA, the following snacks meet both conditions—they’re sufficiently appealing that you’ll eat enough to feel full, and they are good for your digestion, your weight, and your heart health.
When you’re moderately hungry, you should choose from among these “munchies:”
- Fruit, especially apples and pears
- Carrot and/or celery sticks
- Slices of bell pepper
- Roasted chickpeas
- Popcorn (unsalted and unbuttered)
- Rice cakes or crackers (preferably whole-grain)
- Nuts and seeds
You’ll also want something to drink that doesn’t contain a lot of sugar. Here are your best options:
- Plain or sparkling water
- Fat-free milk or plain soymilk
- Coffee or tea (try it without sugar)
- Fruit juice (preferably 100%)
- Tomato/vegetable juice (go for low-sodium)
If you’re more than a little hungry, choose a more filling snack, including one of the following;
- Toast (again, whole-grain is best) with peanut butter
- Cheese (low-fat or fat-free is the best option)
- Yogurt (again, low-fat or fat-free)
- A fruit smoothie
- Crackers topped with tuna or salmon
- Whole-grain crackers with canned tuna or salmon
Finally, if you feel a strong need to satisfy your sweet tooth, try one of these healthy snacks:
- Canned fruit
- Raisins, dates, figs and other unsweetened dried fruits
- A frozen banana or frozen grapes
- A fresh fruit salad
When it comes to eating right, everyone is different—we all have different metabolisms, schedules, and tastes. What works for your best friend, or your neighbor, or even your sibling, won’t necessarily work for you.
If you can control your weight and maintain good health on three meals a day, then that’s the best option for you. If, however, you get hungry between meals and overeat as a result, you’re better off eating many times a day—just be sure the snacks you choose are good for you (don’t forget to check the nutrition labels!), keep your weight down, and contribute to your overall health.