As it turns out, grazing wasn't just another faddish way to munch through the self-absorbed '80s.
Increasingly, research shows that eating several small meals a day may be better than three squares.
* It lowers cholesterol.
* It smoothes out blood sugar peaks and valleys.
* It may make weight loss easier.
"It may have great importance for heart disease," says Dr. David Jenkins, a University of Toronto researcher who has done extensive work on how nibbling lowers cholesterol.
"The fiber story has linked up with the nibbling story," he says. "We feel some of the mechanisms are the same."
When people eat several small meals over the course of a day, "the liver takes it easy and isn't stimulated to build as much cholesterol," he says. The same thing happens with soluble fiber -- the kind found in beans and oatmeal.
But this, like other "nibbling" research, is often hidden, he says. .. Scientists may be looking at the relationship between nibbling and body heat, for example, or whether nibbling helps you retain protein better.
Diabetics and people with hypoglycemia -- low blood sugar -- eat several small meals a day, or three small meals and three large snacks, to keep their blood sugar on an even keel.
"It avoids the peaks and valleys," says Carol Ireton-Jones, a registered dietitian who, while working with nibbling and weight loss, noticed how closely the meal plan resembled the diet for hypoglycemia.
With diabetes and hypoglycemia, flattening out peaks and valleys is the object. It eases the workload on the digestive system and ensures a steady source of energy in the bloodstream.
"Everybody has a peak where we eat a huge meal, feel stuffed and then lethargic," Ms. Ireton-Jones says. "Your body's just trying to digest all that.
"You also know the valley -- 'I haven't eaten anything; I'm starved.'
"There's probably some merit [for everyone] in keeping our blood sugar normalized," she adds.
Nibbling also may help in weight loss, allowing people to consume fewer calories without getting ravenous. It's how vegetarians on a low-fat regimen prevent hunger.
"When you go low-fat and semi-meatless, you have to refuel every one to three hours," says Kathryn Miller, a registered dietitian.
Nibbling also may change metabolism -- the rate at which the body processes energy.
By eating three moderate meals and three snacks each day, Ms. Ireton-Jones says, participants in a weight-loss study were able to keep their metabolic rate steady. Metabolism often drops on a reduced-calorie diet, she says, making weight loss more difficult.
But Dr. Jenkins points out that the data on nibbling and weight loss are far from conclusive. There are two schools of thought, he says.
One holds that nibbling makes your food go further -- you use it more efficiently. The other says that each time you eat, it fires up the digestive track, causing you to burn more energy.
"It's a bit more difficult than one thinks," he says.
And although there's no direct data to support the contention, nibbling may help older people get more vitamins and minerals from their food.
Three problems affecting digestion occur with increasing frequency as we age, says Dr. Ronni Chernoff, associate director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at McClellan Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, Ark.
Older people often feel full on small amounts of food, she says, because of delayed gastric emptying. They may have trouble eating enough food.
"For those people, eating small meals throughout the day is a very reasonable option," she says.
Also, as age advances, the action of the stomach is not as effective," she says. It may not produce enough of the needed elements to completely digest food. When this happens, people are at greatest risk of not getting enough B-12, which leads to anemia.
Another consequence of aging is loss of muscle mass, she says. "The organ tissue in your GI [gastrointestinal] tract is one big muscle."
In both cases, she believes, "smaller meals are easier to handle.
But, as is the case with so much research, the picture is not clear-cut. Nibbling may have its down side, some studies show.
"The hypothesis is that eating increases the flow of the bile acids and that may make it a risk factor for colon cancer," says Ruth Carpenter, a registered dietitian.
"It goes to point out we still need to know a lot more," she says. "There's some merit to having increased meal frequency, but we don't know all the answers.
Winter plum soup
Makes 4 small servings
2 (16-ounce) cans purple plums, drained
1 1/2 cups apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
3 thin orange slices
1/3 cup sour cream (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
freshly ground nutmeg
Pit plums. Puree in a food processor or blender until smooth.
In a small saucepan, heat apple juice, cinnamon and oranges. Cook until reduced to 1 cup. Discard cinnamon and orange slices.
Put pureed plums in a large bowl. Add apple juice mixture, sour cream, vinegar, nutmeg and salt. Mix and chill well. If too thick, add some water. Serve with cinnamon toast. Note: For less fat, substitute plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt for sour cream.
Per serving: calories: 194; fat: 3 grams; cholesterol: 7 milligrams; sodium: 65 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 14 percent.
Gorgonzola and polenta melt
Makes 4 small servings
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 bunch arugula, julienned
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
6 to 8 ounces Gorgonzola, room temperature
Bring water and salt to a boil in medium pot and add cornmeal very slowly, stirring often. Cook for 25 minutes, until polenta is smooth and thick.
In a small bowl, toss arugula with olive oil and vinegar.
Divide cheese evenly among 4 plates. Put dressed greens next to cheese. Pour 1/2 cup polenta over center of cheese.
Per serving: calories: 311; fat: 18 grams; cholesterol: 37 milligrams; sodium: 972 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 53 percent.
Couscous with vegetables
Makes 5 small servings
1/2 (10-ounce) package peas, thawed and drained
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon crushed garlic
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup uncooked couscous
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon margarine
In a microwave-safe casserole, combine peas, onions, mushrooms, garlic, wine, basil and pepper. Stir. Cover and cook 2 minutes on high (100 percent power).
Remove from oven; add parsley, couscous, water and margarine. Stir to mix couscous thoroughly. Cover and cook 1 to 3 additional minutes on high, or until liquid boils. Let stand 3 to 4 minutes. Fluff with fork and serve immediately.
Note: Virtually any combination of chopped vegetables can be cooked with couscous.
Per serving: calories: 111; fat: 3 grams; no cholesterol; sodium: 120 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 24 percent.
Makes 1 serving
1/2 cup fruit-flavored or plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt
1/2 cup fresh fruit juice
1 ripe banana
1 to 2 teaspoons honey or sugar, to taste
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon or nutmeg
1 ice cube, or more, to taste
2 tablespoons nonfat dry milk (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
Per serving: calories: 301; fat: 1 gram; cholesterol: 3 milligrams; sodium: 73 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 2 percent.
Beet pesto with pasta
Makes 6 small servings
1 bunch cooked beets, cut in small dice
4 scallions, peeled, cut into 1/4 -inch slices
1/4 cup vegetable oil
juice of 2 limes
4 ounces tofu, drained, cut in 1/2 -inch cubes
1/4 cup fresh dill, snipped
12 ounces dry pasta, cooked
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, place beets, scallions and oil. Turn off and on until mixture is roughly chopped.
Add lime juice, tofu and dill. Turn on and off until tofu is incorporated into mixture. Texture should be chunky. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine pasta and pesto. Serve at room temperature.
Per serving: calories: 314; fat: 11 grams; no cholesterol; sodium: 167 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 31 percent.
HOW MEN AND WOMEN SNACK
How you snack may depend on whether you're a man or a woman, according to a recent survey.
Nearly half of the women -- 46 percent -- said they snack when they're nervous, whereas 40 percent snack when they're frustrated and 30 percent when they're angry.
On the other hand, 41 percent of men snack when they've finished something important, and 30 percent snack when they're tired.
Sixty percent of all participants also said they snack when they're bored.
The survey, conducted by Old London Melba Toast, included 1,000 men and women.