'Grazing' could cut risk of Alzheimer's and heart disease

 

Diet advice:  Eating five or six small meals a day leads to weight and stress control

Grazing is one of those trendy sounding health words that immediately makes your hackles rise.

What, another edict about how we should be eating?

This particular train of thought suggests that, instead of eating three square meals a day, we should be having at least five or six small ones: grazing rather than gorging can apparently help with weight control, stress levels and concentration.

There is the faintest suggestion that grazing may also reduce the future possibilities of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's. The ideal, apparently, is to eat like a caveman.

At the heart of all this lies your blood sugar levels.

"When you eat something sweet, insulin is released to lower the high blood sugar and take the sugar out of the blood into your cells," says Patrick Holford, nutritionist and founder of the Institute of Optimum Nutrition in Britain.

"The human body's physiology is designed to cope with foods that contain a varied rate of carbohydrates, but not those with pure carbohydrates, such as sugar. So when you're eating sugar, your body's system for regulating your blood sugar levels is being tested. The more you cause these blood sugar highs, the more insulin you release. Consequently, you become insensitive to your own insulin and it begins not to work so well."

The result of all these sugary highs and lows is that, after a while, when you eat sugar, your body just doesn't quite know what to do with it - insulin goes out, but just too late, by which time your blood sugar levels are through the roof, and then they rocket down again.

"The scientific term for these blood sugar regulation problems is dysglycemia," said Mr Holford. "Basically, this means you've lost blood sugar control."

And since dysglycemia - a stepping stone on the way to full-blown diabetes - is being suggested by some scientists as a new suspect in the line-up of culprits for cardiovascular disease, this is quite significant. It has also been linked with Alzheimer's.

Grazing has been shown to be useful in terms of weight control, too.

"It's generally accepted that eating regular meals with small, healthy snacks in between makes it easier to control your weight," said Sue Baic of the British Dietetic Association.

"If you're leaving long gaps between meals, so that by the time you sit down you're really hungry and your blood sugar levels are really low, you're far more likely to overeat," she said.

A small snack between meals, such as rice cakes, nuts and raisins, or a low-fat yogurt, said Ms Baic, would keep your blood sugar levels more stable and reduce the chance of overeating at your next meal.

The crucial thing is to be grazing on the right foods, of course.

"I think the fast pace of 21st-century living is forcing people to graze, but they're grazing on coffee, cigarettes or something sugary that creates blood sugar highs and lows, which upset our biological clock and tip us towards energy and weight problems," said Mr Holford.

He said our bodies were not really built for this, and suggests imagining how our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten, grazing on vegetables, fruit and nuts as they travelled, with the very occasional meat meal.

There were no vending machines until well after the Upper Paleolithic, I'm afraid. Woolly mammoth scratchings, anyone?