Do Leisurely Meals Curb Snacking?

April 08, 2011

Our culture has become snack-centric, but do these small bites in between meals actually curb overall consumption?

Small plates here, snack sized on-the-go foods there - snacks are the new breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything in between. They have virtually replaced the strict structured three meals a day for much of the population, who is instead grazing from meal to meal. But do they actually help us eat less overall, have we cut down on portion sizes at traditional meal times, or are they adding hundreds of calories to our already maxed out caloric daily intake. Researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands set out to find the answer.

Sofie Lemmens, a postdoctoral fellow at Maastricht University, and the lead author of the paper, reported that overall findings demonstrated that those who ate the longer, more drawn out meals, aka more leisurely meals, still didn’t change snacking behavior - although they reported feeling less hungry and more satisfied. During the study, 2.5 hours after the beginning of the longer, more staggered meal, the diners were offered an array of traditional Dutch tea treats like apple cake, chocolate-covered marshmallows, peanuts, chips and waffles; researchers surprisingly found that the group that ate the more drawn out meal ate almost as much as they did after a meal that they had consumed in just 30 minutes. Seems like we just don't know when to stop!

Blood samples were drawn before, during and after the meal to compare levels of “appetite” hormones. When participants ate the drawn-out meal, their satiety hormones increased more gradually versus the 30 minute meal - where they spiked more rapidly. Just before the snacking period, blood samples of diners who had eaten a drawn-out meal revealed lower levels of ghrelin, a hormone that increases with hunger and is believed to stimulate appetite. Yet the differences in hormone levels did not significantly nor statistically affect how much participants ate of the sweet and salty tea snacks.

Sofie Lemmens reports that although hormone levels signaling hunger were low, “the availability of tempting foods overrides the body’s internal messages about when to stop eating.” In essence, our food environment (look around food is available on every corner, everywhere) is overriding our biological cues. There are no set meal times nor meal places; we eat all the time, everywhere we go.

Plan ahead with meals and snacks, if you know you are going to be out of the house for several hours and might get hungry, prepare a snack ahead of time. Being more mindful of meals and snacks is a step in the right direction toward gaining control over eating habits and patterns. Listen to your body, drink more water and move more.