It’s called grazing. That mindless movement of hand to mouth, hand to mouth, over and over again.
And this is the grazing season, where just like cows on the levee, we park ourselves next to the holiday spread and chew and chew and chew, not paying much attention to what we’re eating or how much.
If you’re trying to be good — avoiding those sausage balls, passing on the fudge and skipping the sugary punch — even healthy little snacks can pack on the pounds.
Almost without realizing it, those scale numbers start creeping higher and higher, says Erma Levy, a dietitian at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
“Every snack you pass, you’re reaching in and pulling out snacks to eat,” Levy says. “You’re not realizing how many calories you’re taking in, and you’re not aware of how much you’re eating and how often.”
Even healthy treats, like almonds and pecans, can add up to pounds with just a few trips to the nut bowl easily clocking in at a whopping 500 calories, she says. Tack on those little bowls of candy that appear on desks as Christmas approaches, and those unplanned calories make a big difference.
Grazing can also lead you to consume excess calories when your body is less efficient at burning them, according to Courtney Peterson, a researcher at Pennington. She evaluates the times of day people eat. In the past, many diet plans have encouraged a form of grazing — eating several small meals was thought to assist in weight loss, Peterson says.
“By and large, there’s not really strong evidence for eating lots of small meals,” the researcher says.
Several recent studies — two with animals and one with women in Israel — show that test subjects maintain a healthier weight or lose weight when they eat the majority of their calories in the morning and early afternoon.
A big breakfast and large lunch should provide the majority of your calories, Peterson says.
“If you’re eating earlier in the day, you are already eating most of the food that you need for a day when it comes to the evening, so you are less likely to overeat,” she says. “You never get these strong cravings around dinner time in the evening because you have already eaten most of the food you need.”
Two recent studies have shown that mice and rats that ate more in the morning or early afternoon maintained a healthier weight, Peterson says.
The Israeli study in women found that test subjects who ate large meals early in the day and a light dinner lost two and a half times more weight than the group that ate a large dinner, Peterson says.
“Your body is best able to control your blood sugar typically between early morning and early afternoon,” Peterson says. “After that your blood sugar control is worse.”
The Christmas and New Year’s season presents an endless stream of opportunities to eat later in the evening and graze. Most people just give in, eating too much, and plan to worry about the extra calories come Jan. 1, Levy says.
“It’s almost like a vacation,” Levy says. “It’s that treat. You should be eating whatever you want to eat and no exercise — that’s the kind of mentality people have.”
However, if you don’t want to scowl at the scale next month, Levy suggests watching your calories through the holidays.
Create a strategy to control your calories and stick to it, Levy recommends.
Eat sugary and fatty foods in moderation and avoid mindless snacking.
Don’t completely avoid that pie, just plan for it, and enjoy that one piece.
Levy plans to make room for a slice of sweet potato pie this Christmas. She savors the taste instead of eating half a pie.
“It’s awful, but it’s really, really good,” she says. “But I make sure I monitor the portion, how much I take. It’s all about that taste.”