Most nutritionists recommend snacking, a term that really just refers to smaller meals between the standard 3 traditional meals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One of the major reasons for this guidance is to keep the metabolic rate high; because you are eating more often, you are using your body’s energy to digest these extra meals, otherwise known as the thermic effect of food. Several recent studies have shown this assumption to be incorrect, finding more frequent meals to have no significant effect on increasing your metabolism.
Among several, a 2010 study out of the University of Ottawa compared the effects of 3 meals a day (a low meal frequency) and 6 meals (a high frequency) on digestion, appetite, and body mass changes. There were no significant differences between the two groups. Assuming the same makeup of carbohydrates/protein/fat and calories, both diets will experience the same metabolic increases. The only difference is the individual eating six meals a day will have smaller metabolic increases six times while the other individual will have larger increases three times a day. In summary, meal frequency is far less important than overall caloric expenditure vs. how much overall food you consume in a day.
So, are there any advantages to eating more frequently? More calories. At Sparta, we only train athletes, so this population needs much more energy to offset the higher expenditures in their sport and training. Due to the physical nature of sports, more frequent meals will also prevent bloating and increasing stomach size, allowing the athlete to be more comfortable during high intensity activities.
Perhaps one of the best suggestions for snacks are foods that are higher in fat (see Sparta Point 11/20/09). Fats are higher in energy content, 9 calories per gram rather than protein and carbohydrates that contain less than half at 4 calories per gram. Nuts are one of the easiest snacks, as they are high in fat and do not require refrigeration so it’s easy to throw in your bag. Each variety of nut has something unique to offer; walnuts are higher in omega 3 fats (see Sparta Point 4/29/09), almonds have a high antioxidant content, and the list goes on. Just remember that peanuts are not a nut, actually they’re a legume, offering far less nutritious value and the number one cause of food related deaths. Even if its high allergy potential isn’t readily noticeable, there is likely some subtle inflammation that occurs in your body as a result of this masquerading nut.
Another solution for snacks, or more calories throughout the day, is to pack some meat and vegetables in Tupperware, using a cooler to keep the food from spoiling. After all, the keys to good nutrition are educating oneself on the right choices and being prepared, whether it is with a bag of nuts or a cooler.