I’ve been thinking a lot about meal patterns recently, mostly because I’ve been researching them, but also in terms of my own habits. I am a grazer. I think it was when I moved away from home for the first time that I stopped having set meals and started eating at random intervals throughout the day. With no set hour for lunch or family meal time, it’s easy to slip out of a regular eating routine and into a cycle of eternal snacking. Being a perpetual grazer makes self-control very challenging. With no restriction imposed on when or what you eat, you go through the day happily accepting any opportunity to shove food down your throat. If you’re reading this as a grazer who manages to successfully control their intake than I’m impressed, but for me grazing adds great confusion to my diet. It often means I’ll replace nutritious food with ready-to-eat snacks, such as crisps, nuts or cake. It also makes all foods acceptable to eat at any time of the day, allowing me to have a couple of squares of chocolate at breakfast time and grabbing a few handfuls of cereal before bed without recognising that it’s a super weird time to be eating that food.
This lack of restriction is dangerous and scary. Humans are comforted by routine and structure. In the Western food system’s current state, choice is already overwhelming and it’s all too easy to make unhealthy decisions. This obesogenic environment, combined with no restrictions on meal time or portion size is a recipe for weight gain and obesity-related health consequences. Similarly, it promotes a general feeling of loss of control, which in turn increases feelings of guilt and pressure.
The idea that we’re supposed to eat little and often rather than have three set meals a day is not actually backed up by convincing evidence. In fact, some studies have shown that it’s better to consume all calories in one big meal. The reason is insulin – having large peaks and drops in insulin is bad for your body – each time you eat your body secretes some insulin and then spends the next few hours managing this increase through homeostasis. Uncontrolled insulin levels cause inflammation which in turn leads to weight gain. Initially, researchers thought that constantly eating every few hours is the best way to keep insulin constant but recent evidence suggests that it’s better to alter your insulin as little as possible. This means the less frequently we eat, the better.
With this in mind, the newest recommendations are to eat one large meal a day – quite the opposite of how most of us eat in today’s society. This may be why the 5-2 diet is one of the most successful programs for people to lose weight, as it’s a couple of days a week where the body get’s a break from constant maintenance of insulin.
I suppose this reflects how humans must have eaten before we learned to store or preserve food. We would consume after a kill or forage and not eat again until the next hunt. Interestingly, domesticated animals have been shown to have worse health outcomes, potentially because of the human three-meals-a-day structure we impose on them.
But it’s not just the frequency with which we eat that is bad news for us grazers – it’s been shown that people consume less when following a set meal pattern. I often wonder how all of the food I pick at throughout the day would look on a plate together. It would probably be enough to shock me into following a perfect eating routine, however it’s never quite as easy as you think to change your dietary habits. The main thing I’ve found that has helped to control my grazing tendencies is cooking. While I do spend the entire process taking nibbles and trying bits as I go along, the enjoyment I get from cooking is a huge motivator to eat meals rather than snack. If you find yourself frequently forsaking meals for crisps and chocolate, try to plan a recipe, buy the ingredients and get excited about the prospect of cooking – this long-term gratification will hopefully help to prevent yourself giving in to the short term cravings.
This recipe is the perfect place to start. It’s a warm and comforting dinner that you can spend all day drooling over to help you resist picking out of the fridge as soon as you get home. Oh, and it just so happens to healthy and vegan! Credit goes to my kickboxing instructor who inspired the recipe and gave it the name – ‘Shepardless Pie’.
‘Shepherdless Pie’ with Sweet Potato Mash:
2 Sweet potatoes (cubed)
2 tablespoons almond milk
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 white onion (finely chopped)
3 garlic cloves
2 carrots (finely chopped)
2 celery sticks (finely chopped)
12 sundried tomatoes
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 can chickpeas
100g dried green lentils
200ml veg stock (hot water & veg stock cube)
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Add chopped onions, garlic, carrot, celery and dried coriander to a pan with a splash of olive oil. Keep on a low heat.
- After 10-15mins, or once the onions soft, add sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, parsley and thyme.
- After 10mins, add in lentils and chickpeas and 200ml of veg stock. Season well. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10-15 mins.
- Meanwhile, boil the cubed sweet potato in salty water for 25mins, until soft.
- When ready, add 1 tablespoon oil oil, 2 tablespoons almond milk and mash. Once creamy, mix in nutmeg and cinnamon. Season well
- Pour the veg mixture into an oven dish, spoon the mash over the top.
- Mix breadcrumbs, rosemary and lemon juice together. Scatter over the top of the mash. Season with salt and pepper.