There are many things that prompt us to eat, very few of which have to do with hunger. We might take our cues from a colleague opposite, whose spicy cinnamon muffin compels us to the cafeteria; or perhaps stressful news sends us raiding the pantry or ritual rules our diet.
We are creatures of habit and if we’ve spent the last 10 years indulging in a packet of crisps at 4pm, it can take some adjustment to allow ourselves to go without.
Having recently returned from a health centre in Austria, I’ve been reminded what it feels like to experience proper hunger pangs and have been forced to take stock of how much I snack. The Original FX Mayr focuses on improving digestion and re-educating you about how to eat.
‘The problem now is that we overeat all the time and that tires out the digestive organs,’ says medical director Dr. Stephan Domenig. ‘Here at the clinic, we teach people to slow down, to eat smaller portions and to put their cutlery down between bites.’
When you eat more slowly, your blood sugar doesn’t spike, but rises gradually. This helps us feel fuller for longer. Unfortunately most of us don’t take the time to savour each bite; we eat on the go, in a rush and our brains barely register the falafel sandwich we just wolfed down.
This leads us to eat more, often between meals.
In 1977 the average time between meals for adults was 4.4 hours. By 2006 that window had shrunk to a mere 3.5 hours (Popkin and Duffy, 2010).
So are there any benefits to eating less often, as previous generations did ?
Here are some thoughts on slowing down and snacking less.
We are told that snacking helps to balance blood sugar and stops us overeating, but research say otherwise. In 1977 we consumed on average 2,090 calories a day; by 2006 it had increased to 2,533. The main source of this extra energy? Snack food.
Happier Stomach and Pancreas
When you’re constantly making demands on your digestive system, and denying it a break, it’s harder to manage blood sugar levels. When you snack between meals your pancreas gets no rest, as you are constantly triggering insulin production. This leads to more blood sugar spikes – especially if you’re snacking on simple carbs like bread, biscuits or water crackers.
Three to six hours is the time it takes the body to start releasing energy from our fat stores. In other words, if you really want to kick start your metabolism, you need to quit grazing.
There is also evidence to suggest that longer periods between meals increase the microbial diversity of your colon, which has a positive effect on weight and metabolism. A Danish study published in the journal Nature found that people who are obese have fewer and less diverse gut bacteria than their leaner counterparts (Le Chatelier, 2014).
Gut-bacteria induced weight gain is a real thing. Researchers from the University of Iowa recently likened the effects of negative gut bacteria to eating ‘one additional cheeseburger every single day’ (Bahr et al., 2015)
When Snacking Makes Sense
If there is one thing I’ve learnt as a health coach, it’s that no human body is the same and our needs continually change as our bodies evolve.
During pregnancy, for example, blood sugar levels tend to fluctuate, which might require eating more often (I recommend tamari roasted cashews, paleo crackers with nut butter or coconut yoghurt for slow release energy).
Eating straight after a vigorous workout, also makes sense. Following intense physical activity your body naturally enters a catabolic (muscle breakdown) phase and eating protein five to fifteen minutes after training can aid recovery. For more on How To Eat After Exercise, click here.
But for most of us, learning to reconnect with our hunger is a valuable lesson. By constantly picking, we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be truly ravenous and are denying ourselves the pleasure of tucking into a much-anticipated meal. We all know food tastes better if we wait a little longer, as the saying goes, ‘hunger is the best sauce.’
Laura Bond is a journalist, author and health coach. She specialises in helping clients beat stress, reduce their toxic load and prepare their bodies for babies. To find out more, click here.