I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This might rock your world: You don’t have to eat 6 times a day.
I’ll give you a moment to recover, take as long as you need.
You okay? (Fanning you with a piece of paper). Don’t worry, I’ll explain. And, yes the world still is round.
Over the last couple decades, it was the standard weight loss advice to eat 6 meals a day (or three meals and three snacks, or every three hours). Millions of people have been carting around their pre-packed tupperware, dutifully washing a Mt. Everest sized pile of dishes each day, and making sure to eat every few hours, lest they (gasp!) crash their metabolism. Not hungry? People thought they should eat anyway, because it’s time. Still hungry after those 3 ounces of chicken? That’s okay, just get through a couple hours and you can have another 3 ounces. It wasn’t necessarily awesome, but it was livable. I should know. I did it.
Clearing the Myths
The small, frequent meal idea was based on just two supposed benefits:
- Your metabolism will be higher if you eat small frequent meals.
- Eat more often and you won’t get too hungry and overeat.
Problem though: those aren’t actually true. Either of them.
Your metabolism does go up a bit when you eat, but that amount (known as the thermic effect of food or TEF) is proportional to the size of the meal. That means whether you eat 1800 calories spread over six meals (300 calories each) or 1800 calories in 3 meals (600 calories each), you’ll torch the same 180 calories from digesting, assimilating and storing those nutrients.
So if we won’t screech to a metabolic standstill if we go a few hours without a snack, what about getting too hungry?
There’s evidence that eating small meals and snacks actually doesn’t suppress hunger as well as eating a satisfying meal. You may not feel overly hungry when you have a snack to eat every few hours, but you also never really feel satisfied. And that chronic, mildly sub-satisfied feeling is a constant stress to the brain, body and mind. Many people who eat 6 meals per day fixate on food. They are always thinking about when their next meal will be, what they’ll eat, if they should have 2 ounces of sweet potato or if the carbohydrates would be better spent on a tiny portion of oatmeal, or if they might do one at the 4:00 feeding and one at the 7:00 feeding… if you’re smiling, this is probably sounding familiar.
An amazing thing happens to the brain when the body gets enough food at one time to be satisfied. I don’t mean stuffed, just enough food to be completely comfortable and sated.
The food obsession quiets. You get a long stretch of hours before you need to eat again. It gets food off your mind so you can actually, you know…live your life.
You might be happy with eating 6 meals a day. You might like it and be getting great results. If so, I’m the last person who would try to convince you to change what’s working. But if you’re stuck at a plateau and would like more fat loss progress, or your life feels like it’s revolving around food a bit too much for your liking, I’d like to propose that you don’t have to eat small, frequent meals. You might some substantial advantages to trying out a strategy of fewer meals, eaten to satisfaction.
Those close to me know that I decided to try a fewer-but-larger meal pattern after more than a decade of the old school 6 meals a day pattern. Most of my life I had been packing my mini meals of meat and veggies or eating a protein bar every 3 hours or so. That’s what I thought lean people did. And when I adjusted to fewer larger meals? Not having to exert constant willpower to stop a little short of satisfaction felt amazing. I used to finish one “meal” and be already thinking about the next. I thought something was wrong with me. Why was I always hungry, seemingly obsessed with food? Changing to 3 or 4 meals per day, and eating to satisfaction at each changed all that. Getting satisfied gave me 5-6 hours after a meal when I didn’t even think about food.
Aaaaand I accidentally got leaner by a few percent body fat. Effortlessly. With less hunger and lot less dishes. I’ll admit I was taken back at how easy it was.
Since then I’ve coached hundreds of clients to eat three (or four) meals a day. And they shed fat like crazy, without a ton of struggle, willpower and effort. Most of them have come to me from other trainers or coaching programs that had them eating much more often. Some people are shocked that I would suggest changing that frequent eating habit of theirs. But when I get them leaner than anyone else has without struggle, when they feel more energetic, freed from food obsession, and then start seeing their muscle definition appear….they are believers. The proof is in the abs, so to speak.
Again, if 6 meals is working for you, awesome. Enjoy! But it’s not the only way, and if you haven’t been able to reach your goals in a sane, maintainable way, it might not be the best solution for you.
Metabolic Shift in Fuel Utilization
One adaptation that comes with frequent feeding (whether you call it snacking or small meals) is that the body’s utilization of fuel moves more toward carbohydrate oxidation, with less fat oxidation. Being a carb burner is fine, as long as you keep eating every few hours and have no trouble staying lean. However, if you’ve ever felt your blood sugar tumble you know the sensation is not a polite suggestion to eat, your animalistic brain takes over and it’s FOOD. NOW. If you’re burning predominantly carbohydrates, when they run low (such as a meal getting skipped or delayed) you are at risk of that glucoprivic feeding response.
On the flip side, the ability to burn more fat for fuel leads to more blood glucose stability. When your body turns up the fat mobilization pathways (which it does when you switch to fewer meals), if you miss a meal, your body just mobilizes fatty acids from storage sites and starts burning them for fuel. No mayday scenario. No shakes or dizziness or raiding your neighbor’s candy stash in desperation. Just a normal hunger, that approaches slowly and without bells and whistles.
Bottom line: When the intervals between meals are lengthened into the 5-6 hour range, that cues the body to turn up its use of fat for fuel. Becoming fat-adapted normalizes appetite, making it easier to lose bodyfat.
I’ll be too hungry! I’m already hungry in 2 hours…
Solution: Eat more at meals. You can’t eat only three meals a day when they are tiny. That’s called torture. When you give yourself permission to eat to satisfaction and choose a filling meal with protein, fats and fibrous carbohydrates, you don’t need to eat more than 3 or 4 times a day. You’ll see. Try it out one meal at a time. Set your emotional fear aside (I’ll get fat in one day!) and let yourself eat until comfortably satisfied at breakfast. Notice how long until you are hungry again.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting…without the really long fast
Small frequent meals don’t give us enough hours between meals to get into a real fasted state. When we get truly into that fasted state, a lot of things happen: insulin levels reach their lowest, fatty acids are released from our fat stores, ghrelin production from the stomach increases, and the body generally moves into a state of breaking down fats for fuel and releasing glucose from stored glycogen. In fact, when you don’t eat for 12 hours or so, your body gradually shifts over to burning more fats. Up to 80% of fuel usage after a 12 hour overnight fast is fat.
Eating very often prevents the body from ever getting into that state. Insulin doesn’t come all the way down, which prevents fatty acid release from fat storage sites. It stays locked up there. And the brain is constantly getting mixed signals, some signs indicate that food has come in, but with a mini meal, not enough things happen to fully engage the circuits that shut appetite off. So the brain’s “fullness center” in the hypothalamus doesn’t get completely activated, and appetite returns sooner than would be appropriate for the caloric load consumed.
Mini meals or snacks are like using a dimmer switch for the brain’s appetite center – just making hunger a bit duller several times per day without ever turning it off. Repeated many times, this causes the hunger and fullness sensations to blur.
Behaviorally, it’s just plain easier to overeat if you give yourself 6 times a day to do so.
Eating three meals a day gives us more time to work, play, love, meditate, dance the samba, hassle your boss, or do whatever else is part of your life.
We crave contentment and satisfaction. Using willpower does not work forever, and trying to eat meals that are not large enough to satisfy us on a physical level creates an emotional stress that WILL eventually be relieved. Often as a big meal. And with a carb-favoring metabolism, that big meal will likely be stored as fat.
You don’t need a pre-workout feeding to perform well in the gym. If you eat an adequate post-exercise meal with ample carbohydrates and protein, your muscles will be replenished and that fuel will be ready to go to take you through the next day’s workout. Food you eat immediately before a training session is not available as fuel anyway until it is digested and assimilated.
If you’ve hit a standstill or plateau on 6 meals per day and aren’t losing any fat, but can’t tolerate any more hunger, I recommend adjusting your plan to more substantial meals, but only having 3 or 4 of them.
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