Is Grazing Good for Diabetes?

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Grazing for diabetes

What if you ate frequent, small meals, instead of a few big ones? You wouldn’t need as much insulin at any one time. Maybe postmeal spikes would be much smaller. What does science say about this approach?

The question mainly applies to people with Type 2 who still make some insulin. They may have enough insulin to cover a small meal, but not a normal American meal. If you are injecting rapid-acting insulin, more meals would mean more, smaller shots.

Eating very frequent, very small meals is sometimes called “grazing.” Some evidence shows that it improves insulin function. In one small study, people were assigned in random order to eat a “nibbling diet,” which consisted of 17 snacks per day, or the usual three meals per day. (Both diets had the same amount of total food and types of food.) The nibblers made less insulin, although their sugars were about the same as the regular eaters. That shows their insulin was used more efficiently.

Grazing has been very popular at times for weight loss and diabetes management. It’s not so popular now. A Czech study presented in 2013 found that grazing was less effective for weight loss than eating two main meals a day. No differences were found in glucose levels or insulin function.

Some experts still strongly recommend grazing. The Pritikin Longevity Center compares frequent very small meals to weight-loss surgery. Weight-loss surgery is often touted as a diabetes “cure,” or at least a highly effective treatment. But why does it help?

Weight-loss surgery leaves a person with a very small stomach, maybe the size of an egg. Pritikin’s website says, “Post- surgery life means very small meals, eaten very slowly and chewed thoroughly, for the rest of one’s life.” That grazing diet may be what appears to be “curing” diabetes. So why not eat that way naturally and skip the surgery?

This dynamic may be what accounted for the diabetes “reversal” with a 600-calorie-a-day diet found in Dr. Roy Taylor’s famous study from four years ago in England. You take enough strain off the pancreas and it may be able to function adequately.

Grazing is tricky
Not everyone agrees that grazing is good. An article in the UK’s Daily Mail cited experts who believe grazing slows metabolism, leading to weight gain. These sources felt too frequent eating could even bring on diabetes.

“The problem with grazing,” wrote the Daily Mail, “is that many people ignore the bit about eating only a little, hearing only the message to ‘eat often.'”

You don’t want to overgraze and gain weight, and you also need to get enough nutrition from small feedings. That makes grazing a tricky thing to do correctly. Here are some guidelines for doing it right, from the National Grazers Association. (Yes, there actually is one. Call it NGA.)

Distribute calories throughout the day. On a healthy diet of 1800 calories, they suggest breakfast, lunch, and dinner should be about 400 calories each and three extra meals about 200 calories each. “Learn to assess the size of portions,” NGA says. “This is the key to success.”

You have to eat healthy food to make this work. According to NGA, your diet should be varied and include carbs, proteins, and fats. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, “up to six servings a day.” Drink a lot of fluids.

I think we’ve heard this advice before. How exactly does one do that with the demands of a real life with work and family and stress? has some ideas on successful grazing. Spend several weekend hours preparing meals to have on hand. They suggest you cook “a dozen chicken breasts and yams, mix up and sauté some vegetables for a stir fry, and simmer a batch of beans and brown rice. Place everything in containers and store them in the refrigerator and freezer.”

Eat a good breakfast, and eat it early to shut down the dawn phenomenon, where your sugar goes up in the morning in response to certain hormones being released during the night when the body is fasting.

Eat every 2–3 hours the rest of the day. Have a shake or a homemade snack with you at all times. Don’t rely on buying packaged snacks. As our blogger Martha Zimmer points out, “Convenience foods…are loaded with added sugar, salt, and other things we would not put into a recipe at home.”

Nuts make good snacks and are very healthy. Too many of them make you gain weight, though. Raw nuts are usually better than roasted ones, although more expensive. Seeds are good. Dried fruits are usually too sweet — their glycemic index is too high — to be healthy with diabetes. Some grazers eat mini-sandwiches every couple of hours. Be creative!

I would suggest taking a multivitamin and possibly other supplements as well on a grazing diet, unless you can vary your menu enough to get all your nutrients.

Depending on how your ancestors ate, your body might be well adapted to grazing, or you might hate it. If you try it, I would suggest checking glucose levels frequently until you learn the best ways to do it. And please let us know how it goes and what you think about it.

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