Woman following grazing diet lifestyle and eating a snack

Grazing vs Full Meals: What is Best for Your Health?

By: Megan Grant

At the end of a long day, some of us love nothing more than sitting down with a huge plate of food and the latest and greatest on Netflix. Others prefer eating smaller snacks throughout the day—what many call “grazing.”

When it comes to grazing vs. full meals, there are indeed opinions on which is better for your general health and weight. In this article, we’ll compare the two approaches and discover whether one option really does have a leg-up.

What is grazing?

The term “grazing” calls to mind animals happily munching on clover in a field, all day long—and while our diet may be more diverse, for us, it’s not that different. Think of grazing as living on snacks or mini-meals instead of the traditional three square meals.

For example, maybe you eat a granola bar before leaving for work, a cup of soup for lunch, a couple of hard-boiled eggs as a midday pick-me-up, a small salad with chicken for dinner, and a late-night snack of cheese and crackers. Some people like this approach because they don’t like to go too long without eating. Plus, more frequent mini-meals may help them better control their appetite.

Grazing vs. full meals: What is the healthiest way of eating?

First, let’s get this out of the way: What you eat matters more than when you eat. If you’re eating pancakes, pizza and fried chicken on the daily, it doesn’t matter if you nibble on these items throughout the day or have them all in one brunch/dinner session; it’s not the healthiest of fare. Likewise, if you tend to follow a Mediterranean style diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean proteins, you’re ahead of the game whether you enjoy these foods in tiny, tapas-sized portions or as your breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The best approach to eating is what works best for you and your metabolism. If your schedule makes it nearly impossible to snack throughout the day, and you do best with three healthy meals on a consistent basis, then go for it! If grazing on the go is more your style, then that works, too. The best way to eat will vary from person to person. No two diets are going to be identical.

Now, that being said… there is some research pointing to grazing possibly not being the healthiest option. One study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that grazing increased the total daily caloric intake and can also decrease dietary quality, depending upon the time of day grazing typically occurs:

  • Morning grazing was found to increase calorie intake by 159 calories, but it also increased the dietary quality thanks to additional fruit and other nutritious foods people typically eat earlier in the day.
  • During the evening, however, calorie intake increased by 76 calories and the dietary quality decreased in certain areas. So, grazing at night might not be the best approach if your goal is slimming down.
  • Additional research suggests that eating six or more mini-meals a day can impact your health and are connected to increased caloric intake and night eating (when your appetite might really kick into overdrive!).

Does this automatically mean that grazing is unhealthy and eating big meals is better? No! It means that with grazing, it might be easier to unknowingly eat more than you would with set meals, and also that the quality of your food is less likely to be nutritious if you do that grazing at night. That doesn’t mean that anything’s stopping you from grazing healthfully—but make a conscious effort to stock your pantry with the right foods and to also eat mindfully, putting the fork away when you feel satisfied rather than stuffed. (More on that in a bit!)

Snack grazing: Are there health benefits?

Where does grazing beat out eating full meals? There are some health benefits, although to be clear, the data is inconclusive.

One study found that through a diet with the proper total calorie consumption, grazing (which they tested with six meals a day) helped promote healthy glucose metabolism compared with three meals a day.

Additionally, some people may find it easier to digest smaller meals.

Disadvantages of the grazing diet

On the other hand, a variety of studies have demonstrated that increasing the number of meals can more easily lead to an increase in calorie intake, which can lead to weight gain. There is some debate about this, however: one meta-analysis of 22 clinical studies with a total of 647 participants found no major difference between two, three, or six meals a day when it came to weight loss.

What is the best way to graze?

With grazing, it can be tricky to consume the right amounts of the right types of food. So, if you want to make grazing work for you, then you might benefit from a little food prep.

For instance, you could try organizing your snacks by macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Your body needs all three to function properly. This way, you can rotate between these types of snacks throughout the day, and won’t be as tempted to simply grab a bag of chips whenever your tummy starts to grumble and you want something to eat.

You could also have a designated group of healthy snacks and separate group for “treats.” As you probably guessed, you should eat the healthy stuff more often, but balance is key! Don’t be afraid to indulge in something small and delicious once or twice a day. We eat for fuel, yes, but we also eat for pleasure.

By organizing and grouping your snacks in this manner, you can better gauge what you’ve eaten throughout the day so that you can stay on top of your calories and nutrients.

However you organize your snacks, don't forget about all your micronutrients! It's important to include a variety of fruit, vegetables, and other plant foods into your grazing to ensure you are getting enough vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Even if your meals look more like snacks, you want your nibbles to be balanced.

Grazing diet plan sample

There are infinite possibilities when it comes to how to graze. But to give you an idea of what this might look like, here’s one example of what you might eat in a day:

  • 8:00 AM: Greek yogurt with berries
  • 10:00 AM: An apple with a cheese stick
  • 1:00 PM: Salad with baked chicken on top
  • 3:00 PM: Crackers, hummus, and a spoon of peanut butter
  • 7:00 PM: Egg salad
  • 10:00 PM: Popcorn and a square of chocolate

With these mini-meals, you’re eating plenty of healthy food plus a treat at the end of the night: popcorn and chocolate. And you get a healthy dose of all three macronutrients:

  • Protein: Greek yogurt, cheese stick, chicken, eggs
  • Carbs: Berries, apple, crackers, hummus, popcorn
  • Fat: Cheese stick, peanut butter, eggs
Pro tip: Whether you graze or eat three full meals, aim for 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Intuitive eating: A nutrition choice

If you’re torn between grazing and meals, one of the best things you can do is listen to your body and honor your hunger—and fullness—cues. This could mean grazing, or meals, or a combination of the two!

This is the idea behind intuitive eating. Intuitive eating says that you can make peace with food and trust your body to make the right choices, without worrying about what diet culture tells you. Where fad diets are limiting and hard to stick to, intuitive eating tells you that no food is inherently good or bad, and you don’t have to fight your cravings. There’s room to eat all types of foods. It’s not even a diet, really. It’s more of a lifestyle. Because it’s more reasonable to stick to, it can keep you healthy and help support a healthy weight.

Keep in mind, too, that eating less isn’t always the answer to weighing less. There’s a reason why reverse dieting has been gaining traction!

Listen to your hunger. Listen to your fullness. That’s how you eat intuitively and manage your weight—whether it’s six mini-meals a day or three bigger ones…or somewhere in between!

Psst! Wondering what supplements will best help you manage your weight? Take our quiz and find out!

About the Author: Megan Grant has a degree in communications from University of Michigan. She has been writing professionally for 15 years, with a focus on nutrition, fitness, and general health. A lifelong competitive athlete, she's fascinated by how the human body responds to food and movement.

References

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

By: Megan Grant