There is a common rumor about healthy dieting that you’ve probably heard before: eating frequently throughout the day – or “grazing” – is the best diet plan because it improves your metabolism. Many people believe this to be true. But in reality, grazing is not the best practice for most people.
Between meals, the smooth muscles in your gastrointestinal system display a very distinct pattern of electromechanical activity, called the migrating motor complex. This pattern acts as a cleansing wave through the gastrointestinal tract, which is called peristalsis. It’s kind of like an intestinal “housekeeping” function that sweeps residual undigested material through the digestive system. Migrating motor complexes basically clean up all the indigestible leftovers, such as bone, fiber, foreign bodies, and more, and move them to the colon. MMCs also move bacteria through your digestive system – and if you know about gut health, you know how important the bacterial ecosystem is to your overall physical and mental health!
But here’s the thing: the MMC only occurs during extended periods of time between meals. It can begin anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours (!) after eating, to be exact. This is also what causes the rumbling feeling in your stomach when you’re hungry. So if you’re eating every 2 to 3 hours, it’s possible that you’re not allowing your digestive tract to trigger the MMC. That can have pretty serious consequences.
When we interrupt the normal pattern of the MMC, the bacteria in your gut don’t get transferred to the large intestine. All the good bacteria that you get from eating healthy and taking probiotics ends up hanging out in the wrong place! If this goes on for too long, you can develop small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. You’ll start to feel symptoms of bloating, indigestion, and even poor nutrient absorption – not good.
Constant grazing, or snacking, also inhibits hunger. Hunger is something that we should all feel daily, right before we eat a meal. Knowing what hunger feels like, knowing how much food will satisfy your hunger without overfilling your stomach, and knowing how much of a break your body needs before feeling hungry again – are all healthy (and good!) signs of digestion.
All of these are reasons why I advocate for a diet of healthy meals, regularly spaced throughout the day. Instead of grazing, try picking a healthier alternative. Diets like intermittent fasting and fasting mimicking diets can also be great ways to both boost your metabolism and encourage gut health at the same time.
Kara Dowdall is a Functional Medicine Practitioner and Certified Integrative Health Coach. As part of her practice, she helps individuals adopt lifestyle and clinical recommendations into their lives with the goal of improving health outcomes. Find out more about her practice at www.lifehubcenter.com/