Friday, March 25, 2011

The Power of Mini Meals

Growing up, the majority of us are taught to eat three filling meals a day. Breakfast usually entails consuming something small; lunch is often something handy, like a sandwich, and supper is customarily a feast where the whole family meets to gorge in an “escapade of osmosis and gluttony”.

For the average American, these three meals, plus in between snacks, adds up to about 2700 calories a day, which if we were extremely active and the calories were nutrient dense, this might be alright. But let's face it... most Americans are not exceptionally active, and a large portion of those calories tend to be empty calories or food items lacking in nutritional density, leaving us hungry for more. 

Thus, our goal should be to maximize the nutrient density of each bite we take, and take less bites overall. Can we achieve this without feeling starved? Absolutely! The trick is to graze throughout the day, as children are inclined to do, on mini meals. Grazing is great for our digestion, and the entire GI tract was designed for it. The stomach only produces so many enzymes with which to break things down. When food is passed without being fully digested, this can cause gastrointestinal irritation, prevent healing nutrients from being absorbed and cause other symptoms, such as acid reflux, dermatitis and diverticulitis.

The size of a meal shouldn't be more than the size of your stomach, in the first place. To help your eyes get a general picture of the size of your stomach, open your fist so that the tips of the thumb and forefinger touch. Your stomach is about the width of this open fist and twice as long. Next time you are about to binge, placing your fist next to your heaping plate, and noticing the mismatch, will help you adjust the size of your next meal. (Compare the tiny fist of a toddler next to a full plate. You can now see why tiny tummies can get upset easily.)

Traditionally, the working class has been conditioned to eat three square meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. This routine was obviously designed for the benefit of work productivity rather than human health. Many of us work from 9 to 5, with only one break to eat at lunch. This maintains a steady work pace with few interruptions, since breakfast and dinner (especially dinner) have been conveniently placed outside working hours. However, the noon to 6 stretch is particularly damaging to our health. It destabilizes oxidization levels, blood sugar levels gets low, which often leads to grabbing a snack, and all too often they are junk food snacks, void of nutritional content. By the time dinner is served, we are starving and we overeat. This taxes the stomach, with not enough digestive enzymes to help break the food down for proper absorption. In today’s day and age, following the "three square meals a day" principle, is not only unnecessary, it’s downright harmful. Our metabolism can only handle a certain amount of calories, carbs, fat, and protein in one sitting.

Logically speaking, since humans are omnivorous, there is no reason why we should follow such a sequential eating pattern where long periods of fasting separate each meal. Just compare the eating habit of an ape (omnivore) to a lion (carnivore). One munches on anything it can find all day, while the other stuffs itself every-so-often after long periods of fasting.

Tips for Transitioning to Mini Meals:

Redistribute. Understand that eating more meals a day doesn't mean more food is being consumed. Following the mini-meal principle simply takes an entire day’s worth of nourishment and redistributes it throughout the day. You’ll end up with meals that are roughly 50-70 calories, 8-15 grams of protein and 8-10 grams of fat 
in each.

Modify Eating Out. Ask for your entrĂ©e to be brought with ½ of it in a to-go box. This may be an odd request, but if it’s already set aside, you are less likely to eat your entire meal. Wrap your ½ burrito or sandwich in foil, put it in your bag and enjoy the rest in a hour or so.

Prepare meals in such a way that they do not have to be eaten in one sitting. A steak with mashed potatoes and salad with dressing is a good example of a meal that can't be eaten later on easily or deliciously. Mashed potatoes become grainy, the salad gets soggy and you will somehow have to reheat the steak and potatoes without the salad. Cutting up the steak along with a veggie stir fry with brown rice, however, is an easy way to portion the meal in two parts, one for dinner and another for the next day’s lunch. You still get your carbs, veggies and protein, and it reheats well in a microwave, toaster oven or pan.

Stock your bag or backpack. Food on the go is an incredibly important key to success. Having a stock of apples, trail mix, energy bars, little containers of nut butters and hummus, cut veggies, vegan and meat jerky, dried fruit and mini V-8’s on hand, makes it simple to eat when you are hungry. This helps you consume less junk as well, saving you unnecessary calories from the convenience store, grocery store line, etc.

Keep supplies handy. Keep a little Ziploc baggie full of paper napkins, handkerchiefs, salt/pepper packets and reusable produce bags. It doesn’t take up much room, but whether you need to blow your nose, or have some extra protection from a foil wrapped burrito that you don’t want to leak, you have everything you need right there in your bag. I also keep a little packet of bamboo utensils in my bag. This cuts down on my use of disposables, and they are sustainable and durable.

As stated above, eating smaller meals more frequently stabilizes nutrient oxidization levels, making the body more efficient at burning food, so anybody who wants to lose weight should adopt this eating principle. Eating smaller meals has additional benefits; it is believed to lower blood cholesterol, burn 10% more calories per day, puts less stress on your heart and helps stabilize your blood sugar, which will help you stave off cravings for unhealthy foods, mood swings and headaches which are sometimes caused by insulin surges.

For more tips on how to incorporate mini meals into your lifestyle, 
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