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How Often Should You Eat? The Truth About Meal Frequency

One of the most common questions that I get asked by  my clients is “how often should you eat to lose weight?”

Many weight loss experts claim that eating 5-6 small meals is necessary in order to successfully lose weight. I’m not so sure…

The Claims Regarding Meal Frequency

Most people who claim that 5-6 smaller meals is necessary for successful weight loss say so for four main reasons:

  1. Each time you eat, you burn extra calories through what is called the “thermic effect of food”. In other words, each time you eat it requires energy to digest and absorb that food.
  2. Eating 5-6 small meals per day will keep the body out of starvation mode, whereas going hungry for 5-6 hours will result in a slowing of metabolism.
  3. Multiple small meals will keep blood sugar balanced, which prevents weight gain. 3 larger meals will causes big swings in insulin and blood sugar and thus weight gain.
  4. Multiple meals will help to control appetite; if you don’t eat every 2-3 hours, appetite will become ravenous.

Although all of these arguments make good logical sense, so do many other things in the weight loss world that never pan out into real world result. Let’s put each reason on trial to see if we can say definitively that meal frequency matters and then I will share with you some tips on applying this information into your own life!

The Thermic Effect of Food

It is true that each time you eat, metabolism will kick up in order to digest the and absorb the food. The question is, how much of a difference does it make?

The thermic effect of food contributes to between 10-20% of your daily caloric expenditure. There are a few factors that will determine whether you fall closer to the 10 or the 20% mark:

  • Genetics – Can’t do much about this, but some people probably burn more because they are genetically gifted
  • Muscle mass – It appears that people who are lean and muscular burn more calories simply by eating. (J Clin Invest, 1985.76:p.1107-1112)
  • Exercise habits – People who exercise regularly enjoy a heightened thermic effect of food! (J Gerontol., 1991. 46(2): p. B54-8)
  • Recent Exercise – People who have exercised shortly before eating get an extra spark in the thermic effect of food. (Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2003. 13(3): 396-402)

Meal frequency likely does increase the thermic effect of food, however, most of the leaders in the field of weight loss concur with our position that, in the scheme of things, the increase is so small that it probably matters little.

You get far more benefit by building muscle and remaining active than by eating more frequently.

Eating Fewer Meals Will Cause Your Body to Go Into Starvation Mode

The body is well suited to burn fat for energy between meals, it’s a fallacy that the body will go into starvation mode within a matter of hours. In fact, research suggests that you could fast for 72 hours without seeing any decrease in metabolism (British Journal of Nutrition 2005; 81:69-73). Other research had women cut their calories by half of what they normally eat for 3 days, again, metabolism was unchanged. I could go on with the research, but let me just put it into perspective for you…

Your metabolism is tied to your muscle mass, not how often you eat. In fact, one study placed people on a very low, 800-calorie diet along with t a resistance training program to keep the muscle mass stable. After 12 weeks, the metabolism remained unchanged!

You can imagine that if 72 hours of fasting will not impact the metabolism, the body can easily handle 5-6 hours.

Many Small Meals Will Keep the Blood Sugar Stable

This statement is only true if each meal contains carbohydrates. It especially applies to people who are not active and/or people who refuse to avoid or limit refined carbohydrates.

If I have three 600-800 calorie meals comprised of mostly protein and fat, my blood sugar will be better balanced than 5-6 small meals comprised of sandwiches, potatoes, sugar, etc. Blood sugar balance is determined by meal composition, mostly by quantity of carbohydrates, more than it is determined by meal frequency.

Many Small Meals Will Help to Control Appetite

It’s hard to argue with this one. More meals may help to regulate your level of hunger, however, only as long as you continue to eat on your 2-3 hour schedule. God help you  if you miss a meal or are not in a situation where food is handy. Small meals, or grazing, is the nutritional equivalent of living one paycheck away from bankruptcy. Perhaps we should attempt to find ways to teach your body to live off of fat, rather than sugar. Then appetite will be better balanced, even when you fast for a few hours.

What Does All This Mean? How Often Should You Eat?

Consistency trumps frequency practically every time…

The act of eating healthy on a consistent basis will determine success with weight loss. One of the most successful participants in one of my fat loss groups was a woman who ate three meals per day. Why was she so successful? Because it fit her lifestyle and allowed her to continue to eat healthily rather than trying to fit someone else’s mold of eating.

If the research proved without a shadow of a doubt that eating more frequently resulted in significant weight loss over eating less frequently, then it might make sense to try to build the habit of eating more frequently into your lifestyle. The problem is the research has been totally inconclusive, which means…the only definative answer to the question of meal frequency is…”It Depends…”

It depends on your lifestyle, your work schedule, your goals, your activity level, but mostly, your ability to live the habit.

Here are some take-home messages:

  1. In the absence of definitive proof, choose the healthiest habit that comes most naturally. If you gravitate towards smaller meals, then go for it. If three larger meals fits, and you don’t suffer raving hunger, then that’s your meal frequency!
  2. If you are very active, the truth is, you will probably have to eat more often; you simply won’t be able to fit enough nutrition into three to four meals.
  3. Too many people are not eating enough calories to keep their body from cannibalizing their muscle. Make sure resistance training is a key part of your fat loss program in order to maintain your metabolism for the long run.
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