Thursday, April 11, 2013

Debunking the ‘Smaller, More Frequent Meals’ Myth

For many people, the road to eating well begins with a common practice: snacking. We hear that the traditional three meals per day is not at all ideal for weight loss; 5-6 smaller meals instead will curb your hunger and rev up the metabolism.

A popular metaphor is to think of the body’s metabolism like a fire. If you try to start a fire with a big, fat log you probably won’t get very far. The key is to get the fire nice and hot by feeding it twigs, dry leaves, and small branches. Then, when you put on the heaviest piece of wood, the blazing inferno will eat it right up. It’s the same with food. If you eat just a few large meals per day, your metabolism will be sluggish. Give it many small meals instead and the body will be more than ready to become a calorie-burning machine when you sit down for that monster dinner.

Makes sense, right?

But we must remember the body isn’t that simple. Metaphors are nice, but just because they make sense doesn’t automatically mean such a complex system will automatically follow its rules.

Luckily, though, we have the power to test these assumptions through the scientific method and figure out what’s really going on. Snacking has been a suggested weight loss method for a long time, so naturally there have been a few studies to test the claim. This might come as a surprise, but there actually isn’t much research suggesting that snacking is beneficial for weight loss goals or curbing hunger.

Here’s what some of those studies have to say:

Increased meal frequency does not equal accelerated weight loss.
Snacking actually increases the incidence of hunger, rather than reduces it.
Snacking does not affect weight loss or how many calories the body burns, given the same amount of food intake.
According to this article, three separate studies found that the metabolism isn’t affected by moderate fasting.
Ben Greenfield, who was once an advocate of 5-6 meals a day, recently changed his tune after being unable to find any scientific support for it. He wrote an informative article debunking the meal frequency myth. Here’s an excerpt:

As a matter of fact, when you restrict feeding times to three meals per day your body produces more anti-aging and muscle building hormones. When you eat more than three times per day, you produce more fat-building and age-accelerating hormones. By keeping your blood sugar levels constantly elevated with snacking, you never really allow your body to learn how to reliably burn fat as a fuel.

What Does It All Mean?

It seems that 5-6 meals a day is not necessary for an efficient metabolism and weight loss, and could actually be detrimental based on your goals. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a disastrous aspect of the American diet that should be eliminated fully. Many people (including our very own Noel Dasta) have used snacking successfully. While research suggests that the change to 5-6 meals a day might have not contributed to the weight loss technically, just being able to make a change could be psychologically motivating. Also, for certain athletes who have to eat a ton (bodybuilders, for example) 5-6 meals makes a lot of sense to get in the needed amount of calories.

On the other hand, packing 4 meals to take to work everyday can be a hassle, and studies do suggest that intermittent fasting might be more beneficial to weight loss. So while smaller meals might suffice for those just beginning their journey for a more healthy lifestyle, eventually you owe it to yourself to see if it’s actually the best regimen for you.