A little bit of food several times a day may be best diet Minimeals

January 16, 1994|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

As it turns out, grazing wasn't just another faddish way to munch through the self-absorbed '80s.

Increasingly, research shows that eating several small meals a day may be better than three squares.

* It lowers cholesterol.

* It smoothes out blood sugar peaks and valleys.

* It may make weight loss easier.

"It may have great importance for heart disease," says Dr. David Jenkins, a University of Toronto researcher who has done extensive work on how nibbling lowers cholesterol.

"The fiber story has linked up with the nibbling story," he says. "We feel some of the mechanisms are the same."

When people eat several small meals over the course of a day, "the liver takes it easy and isn't stimulated to build as much cholesterol," he says. The same thing happens with soluble fiber -- the kind found in beans and oatmeal.

But this, like other "nibbling" research, is often hidden, he says. .. Scientists may be looking at the relationship between nibbling and body heat, for example, or whether nibbling helps you retain protein better.

Diabetics and people with hypoglycemia -- low blood sugar -- eat several small meals a day, or three small meals and three large snacks, to keep their blood sugar on an even keel.

"It avoids the peaks and valleys," says Carol Ireton-Jones, a registered dietitian who, while working with nibbling and weight loss, noticed how closely the meal plan resembled the diet for hypoglycemia.

With diabetes and hypoglycemia, flattening out peaks and valleys is the object. It eases the workload on the digestive system and ensures a steady source of energy in the bloodstream.

"Everybody has a peak where we eat a huge meal, feel stuffed and then lethargic," Ms. Ireton-Jones says. "Your body's just trying to digest all that.

"You also know the valley -- 'I haven't eaten anything; I'm starved.'

"There's probably some merit [for everyone] in keeping our blood sugar normalized," she adds.

Nibbling also may help in weight loss, allowing people to consume fewer calories without getting ravenous. It's how vegetarians on a low-fat regimen prevent hunger.

"When you go low-fat and semi-meatless, you have to refuel every one to three hours," says Kathryn Miller, a registered dietitian.

Nibbling also may change metabolism -- the rate at which the body processes energy.

By eating three moderate meals and three snacks each day, Ms. Ireton-Jones says, participants in a weight-loss study were able to keep their metabolic rate steady. Metabolism often drops on a reduced-calorie diet, she says, making weight loss more difficult.

But Dr. Jenkins points out that the data on nibbling and weight loss are far from conclusive. There are two schools of thought, he says.

One holds that nibbling makes your food go further -- you use it more efficiently. The other says that each time you eat, it fires up the digestive track, causing you to burn more energy.

"It's a bit more difficult than one thinks," he says.

And although there's no direct data to support the contention, nibbling may help older people get more vitamins and minerals from their food.

Three problems affecting digestion occur with increasing frequency as we age, says Dr. Ronni Chernoff, associate director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at McClellan Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, Ark.

Older people often feel full on small amounts of food, she says, because of delayed gastric emptying. They may have trouble eating enough food.

"For those people, eating small meals throughout the day is a very reasonable option," she says.

Also, as age advances, the action of the stomach is not as effective," she says. It may not produce enough of the needed elements to completely digest food. When this happens, people are at greatest risk of not getting enough B-12, which leads to anemia.

Another consequence of aging is loss of muscle mass, she says. "The organ tissue in your GI [gastrointestinal] tract is one big muscle."

In both cases, she believes, "smaller meals are easier to handle.

But, as is the case with so much research, the picture is not clear-cut. Nibbling may have its down side, some studies show.

"The hypothesis is that eating increases the flow of the bile acids and that may make it a risk factor for colon cancer," says Ruth Carpenter, a registered dietitian.

"It goes to point out we still need to know a lot more," she says. "There's some merit to having increased meal frequency, but we don't know all the answers.

Winter plum soup

Makes 4 small servings

2 (16-ounce) cans purple plums, drained

1 1/2 cups apple juice

1 cinnamon stick

3 thin orange slices

1/3 cup sour cream (see note)

1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

freshly ground nutmeg

pinch salt

Pit plums. Puree in a food processor or blender until smooth.

In a small saucepan, heat apple juice, cinnamon and oranges. Cook until reduced to 1 cup. Discard cinnamon and orange slices.

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