Is grazing bad for gut health? Grazing and eating too frequently interferes with the MMC (motor migrating complex) and may promote dysbiosis and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). In episode 21 of the Thank Gut It’s Fixed Show, I talk about the potential problems that can happen with grazing and eating small meals too frequently.
Is Grazing Bad for You?
Let’s talk about that!
It’s often been said that eating frequently may help you lose weight, but today I want to talk about why grazing is actually not beneficial for your gut health. Just to give you a little bit of background, a reporter reached out to me this past week, and they were trying to come up with an article about weight loss and general health advice. They asked me what my opinion is on grazing and eating smaller meals throughout the day. I’m actually a proponent of larger, fewer meals in the day, and that’s what I will be talking about today.
When you eat several times throughout the day, your body is producing insulin constantly. Insulin is your fat storage hormone-it’s going to signal your body to dump the extra glucose in your blood into your fat issues and prevent you from losing weight. Plus, each time you eat, you have an opportunity to overeat – even by a little bit. It’s one more opportunity to make a bad choice. The more decisions you have to make related to your food, the more overwhelming it can be.
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Migrating Motor Complex
Something that I don’t always get a chance to explain, and a lot of times people don’t focus on, is that grazing can contribute to and affect so many digestive issues. So let’s talk about the digestive system and why is grazing bad for it. The digestive system is made up of the esophagus, the stomach, the small intestine, and the large intestine. Until you get rid of food, your body will go through a series of motions or contractions called “peristalsis”. What happens is this will help your body chew up the food in your stomach, then push it to the out of the stomach. Then the food will travel through all of the small intestines. When it reaches the large intestine, it will develop waste (poop!), and then you get rid of whatever is left from your food.
Imagine a snake trying to move–that’s exactly how the muscles contract in your digestive system. Once the food is pushed down, it’s time for clean up! A series of motions called the “Migratory Motor Complex” or “Migrating Motor Complex” (MMC) push any waste, bacteria or undigested food particles outside the small intestine into the large intestine. It takes about 90-120 minutes from the stomach to the end of the SMALL intestine for the cleaning process to finish (1, 2).
Why is this important?
The majority of bacteria lives in your gut in the LARGE intestine. That’s where good fermentation should happen. There’s a muscle that separates the small and large intestine, and it locks up so bacteria doesn’t travel backwards. Disruptions in normal MMC function leads to bacteria accumulating in the small intestine and increasing the risk for SIBO. (2)
Read more about small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) on episode 16.
Whether you have SIBO or not, you may have symptoms related to disruptions in your MMC. You may have bloating, gas, indigestion. You may have heartburn or constipation because food is not moving properly through the gut. Bacterial in the small intestine-where they shouldn’t be–are eating your food and using nutrients before you have a chance to digest and absorb them. You could end up with fatigue or other issues due to nutrient deficiencies. We definitely don’t want overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine!
MMC is a very key and integral part of your gut health. It’s what makes sure all of this bacteria gets pushed to the large intestine where it’s okay to have them there. That’s where they’re supposed to be and that’s where the fermentation happens, but not in the small intestine.
How Is Grazing Bad for my Gut?
What does all of this have to do with grazing and eating? Eating interrupts the MMC contractions (3). While it’s typically completed in 1.5-2 hours, in people with slow gut transit time, people who experience constipation, people with slow gastric emptying or gastroparesis, this process may even take longer. If you have a longer transit time, because of hypothyroidism for example, the MMC needs more time for you.
So is grazing bad for your gut? Yes! Every time you eat this process stops and has to reset. The sweeping motion has to start again from the top, going back to the stomach. MMC starts after your finish eating, but if you eating again an hour and a half later, it resets. Your small intestine may never actually experience a full wave of cleaning. It’s like sweeping your kitchen when your kids are around. They step on the dust and all of the dirt you just collected, and then you have to start all over again.
The same thing happens with your digestive system! MMC does not work if you eat or if you keep interrupting it with food or meals. We also know that having low hydrochloric acid in the stomach can reduce the speed of MMC. I’ve talked about acid, how it’s important, so many times before (read this post).
Furthermore, taking a PPI medication, proton pump inhibitors, Prevacid or Nexium, whether long term or even for a short period of time will reduce the acid which is protective and helps speed up digestion and MMC. Read more about the side effects of PPIs here.
Stress is also going to slow down or shut down digestion and MMC. When you are always in a chronic state of stress, your body thinks that it’s going to escape because the threat is coming. Digestion is pushed to the back burner, it’s not a priority anymore! The body will shut down the muscle movement because we need to get all of the energy and all of the blood to our skeletal muscles to run away from this foreign animal or this monster attacking us! The stress of our day to day lives doesn’t really go away, we’re carrying it on our shoulders every single day, so we have to learn how to manage it for our own sanity and for gut health!
Is Grazing Bad for Digestive Health? The Take Home Message
Things that slow MMC and proper gut cleaning include eating, low HCL, PPIs use, stress and constipation, and I also want to throw in the thyroid because it can slow down everything in your body including the muscle movement of your gut. What are the symptoms that you may experience if you have that problem? You may feel gas, bloated, indigestion, heartburn, constipation. You are more likely to have SIBO if you graze too much.
MMC is also managed by your nervous system and this may be something that’s out of your control. For example, Parkinson’s disease disrupts the nerve impulses or the nerve signaling between the brain and the gut, and there may be little that you can do to change that. But we can control how often we eat. After finishing your meal, give your gut four hours so that it can go through this cleaning motion properly.
Also, the MMC is working when you sleep. It allows your gut to go through more cleaning, getting rid of waste, and pushing bacteria to the large intestine. That’s why sleeping is important, and that’s why not eating at night is also really important.
As a fun fact, if you hear your stomach growling a few hours after a meal it is very likely that this is your MMC contracting and the muscles in your gut moving. Next time you hear this sound know that your gut is doing its job! If it hasn’t been three hours yet since your last meal, wait a little bit. Don’t rush eat. Give your body some time to promote proper gut health and prevent SIBO or other digestive issues.
I hope this was helpful! This was just a quick look into grazing and how it affects your digestive health. You can try to do it on your own and put the pieces together. However, if you want clarity and the fastest route to help heal your gut and get it to its best health, I highly recommend working with someone who is experienced in this area.
When you’re ready to get a full gut assessment, and a customized food plan, and get treatment for any condition or imbalance that could be happening and you don’t know it, let’s talk! Book a discovery call HERE.