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Is Grazing or Eating 5-6 Meals a Day Keeping You Fat?

A common recommendation from health and fitness gurus is to graze all day. Grazing is an eating tactic where you eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day rather than eating the classic 3 square meals daily. What if they are wrong, what if recommending 5-6 small meals is making fat loss nearly impossible for unsuspecting dieters. Let’s explore this topic…

First we need to understand the philosophy behind grazing…

NOTE: This next section will get technical. If you are a Fat CutterTM, this does not scare you because you understand that you MUST become an EXPERT in fat loss in order to succeed!

Proponents of grazing hypothesize that eating many small meals throughout the day does two things:

  1. Grazing prevents large swings in insulin that make fat loss nearly impossible. By eating smaller meals, insulin levels will only increase by small increments which will make it easier to access fat cells.
  2. Grazing prevents the body from entering a state of starvation that causes the fat cells to be locked down. This too would result in a decrease in fat loss.

These two points make good sense. So what could be the problem? To understand the argument against standard grazing you must understand a bit about how insulin and sugar works in the body. If you haven’t read the blog post “Understanding Insulin in Order to Understand Fat Loss” you should do so before you continue. Otherwise, I am going to assume that you have a fundamental understanding of insulin’s role in the body, so let’s continue…

How Is Insulin Secreted?

The fact that you are about to learn is unknown to 98% of health and fitness gurus. Ok, I made that figure up but trust me most nutritionists and health experts do not know this little tidbit. The pancreas is the organ that produces and secretes insulin. That is a well known fact. A lesser known fact is that the pancreas has two phases of insulin secretion:

  • Phase I – The pancreas has a small reserve of pre-made insulin that is always ready to be secreted into the blood. These stored packets of insulin are secreted into the blood as soon as sugar reaches the blood. This results in an insulin peak within the first 30 minutes after your first bite of food. We call this phase I insulin secretion.
  • Phase II – During phase II the pancreas secretes insulin into the blood as it becomes available. This will result in a slow release over the next 3 hours which would complete the insulin cycle.

Let me introduce you to insulin’s fraternal twin brother, glucagon.

Glucagon is a hormone that has the opposite effect of insulin. While insulin causes energy to be stored in the cells of the body, glucagon causes that energy to be pulled out and burned. As far as fat loss is concerned, insulin is the bad brother and glucagon is the good brother and they do not like each other. In fact, when one is present the other is not. In other words, if insulin is high then glucagon is low. And if glucagon is high then insulin is low. This means you can’t have your cake and burn it too. Your body is either in a state of storage or a state of metabolism, it cannot be doing both.

So, let’s follow the hormones…To set the stage, you have just woken up and taken the first bite of a hardy breakfast. Because your body has had all night to store little packets of insulin your insulin levels peak after 30 minutes and glucagon is MIA. This is the peak time for your insulin to carry glucose into the tissues of the body. Because you are in a fasting state, your sugar stores are low. First, insulin visits the liver and knocks on the door. The liver is low on stored sugar because it used a lot of its sugar stores during the night to keep your body running. Insulin then carries the sugar into the liver where it is stored as glycogen. Next insulin knocks on the door of the muscles which have also used some of their glycogen during the evening. Insulin enters and fills the muscles up with sugar. If there is any sugar left then insulin knocks on the door of the fat cells to see if the fat would like some sugar. Of course the fat always says “Sure! Come on in! Stay as long as you like.” It takes approximately three and a half hours to conclude insulin’s rounds and when insulin drops to nearly zero then his brother glucagon begins to make his rounds.

You can see, no fat burning occurs for three and a half hours after the first sugar enters the blood. If insulin remains low then you have now reached fat burning time as glucagon goes to work, knocking on the door of the liver, muscles and fat asking to borrow some sugar! You will remain in the fat burning zone as long as insulin levels are nearly zero. So, back to grazing…

If we graze, then we are eating small meals every three to thee and a half hours. This can cause more insulin to be secreted just as insulin should be concluding its rounds. The pancreas has not had an opportunity to store up little packets of insulin and thus there is no phase I insulin secretion and thus your pancreas goes right to phase II. Unfortunately, because there is no phase I, the pancreas prolongs phase II which causes insulin to remain elevated for longer periods of time! The result is your body never gets into the fat burning zone.

So does this mean the end to grazing? Not at all, in fact, grazing is still considered the right approach with one simple secret…

“Spread your carbohydrate containing meals or snacks by 5-6 hours”

Most grazing programs recommend 3 main meals and 2-3 snacks each day. The problem is they often recommend carbohydrates with each meal and snack. Each main meal should be separated by 5-6 hours with snacks consisting of low glycemic vegetables and proteins in between. It is carbohydrates that cause insulin to be secreted, so if the snack consists of low glycemic vegetables and proteins then insulin will not be elevated and fat burning can continue! This will allow 2-3 hours of fat burning time after each main meal. That means 4-6 hours of extra fat burning time in a day. Who can use that? I sure can! One final note before I end this blog post, many people use a protein shake as a snack in between the main meals. This can be a very helpful practice, however, whey protein is not the best choice when snacking (unless it is taken directly after exercise). Please see the article “Which Protein Shake is Best for Fat Loss” to learn more.

Summary:

1. Grazing entails eating 3 main meals and 2-3 snacks each day

2. Eating carbohydrates causes insulin to be secreted into the blood which stops the fat burning process

3. Separate carbohydrate containing meals by 5-6 hours to optimize fat burning time

4. Snack on protein and/or low glycemic vegetables to keep insulin levels low while grazing

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