EVERYONE trying to improve health, fitness, or fat loss should filter all changes through their individual metabolic tendencies and psychological preferences. This is the core teaching of Metabolic Effect, hence the acronym ME. This blog explores the idea of meal frequency. I believe the approach to eating frequency is viewed from a very narrow focus in the health and fitness industry. And I believe the issue is not completely thought out by many fat loss coaches. Questions on meal frequency are also becoming some of the most asked questions we receive at ME. So, I have compiled the 5 major points on this issue as I see it.
1) Science is useful only when translatable to the individual. In other words, it is absolutely true from the science point of view that eating less frequently or even fasting will have more beneficial effects on lowering insulin and leptin. So, I agree with many fat loss experts on this point. However, it is important to avoid a narrow minded focus and look beyond simple calorie consideration or isolated considerations of certain hormones. There are both direct effects and secondary outcomes related to meals, and they should both be considered. Acute effects of eating less frequently can raise the hunger hormone ghrelin. This is a hormone rarely considered by those preaching less frequent eating. Large surges in ghrelin will slow fat loss, but more importantly activate the reward centers in our brain making us want to eat larger amounts and also causing us to crave the wrong things (1) (2) (3). Skipping meals will also raise the stress hormones in many, which again lead to cravings specifically for fat & sugar (4).
For many, and we would say this is true for the majority of those who struggle with body change, opting to eat less meals or fast will lead to compensatory reactions (due to other hormonal effects) of increased hunger, uncontrollable cravings, and wild swings in energy. Which, of course, leads to eating more at future meals and eating more of the wrong things (large amounts of fat, sugar, starch). So, a strategy that seemed at first to be beneficial to leptin and insulin ends up making things worse. This, in my mind, is the single biggest oversight made by fat loss coaches who preach the “eat less frequently” approach. It simply does not work for most people who are beginning this lifestyle. It certainly will work for some, and if you happen to already be very lean and active it will likely have a better chance of being successful for you. That is a major point that seems to be neglected; lean and obese people are not built the same and will respond differently to meal frequency.
2) Eating & stress both impact insulin. Many people forget there are two ways to become insulin resistant: 1) eat your way there and 2) stress your way there. For many, skipping meals results in increased stress hormone production leading to insulin resistance and the same hunger, energy, and craving issue I spoke of above. In order to understand this, a person must understand endocrinology 101; namely stress hormones raise blood sugar when food is not there to do it instead. For those with more balanced metabolic processes this is useful and beneficial and is not a real issue, but in some it can be a significant contribution to fat loss resistance and deranged eating habits. This issue is not as common as other issues, but it seems to be completely ignored by most fat loss practitioners making me wonder if they are even aware of this action of stress hormones.
3) The more active you are the more you will need to eat to maintain muscle. One good way to lower your muscle mass is to eat less and exercise more. Does this happen to everyone? No. There are certainly those who can fast multiple days weekly and maintain their lean body mass. But it is a mistake to take these individuals and apply their success to everyone. They are in the minority and have a genetic propensity to remain more anabolic than most. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recently released their position statement on meal frequency and point out that an active person will likely do best with more meals (5). Since all fat loss seekers are active, or at least should be, eating more frequently is probably a better approach from this regard as well.
4) Food is on every corner, and your physiology is built to seek it out every chance you get. Common sense dictates that food avoidance is not going to work over the long run as a lifestyle change. One thing a clinical practice in body change will teach you is that people have a very difficult time trying to win a battle of wills against their physiology. The overweight and obese have an even more difficult time. It is called YO-YO dieting for a reason. The eat less mantra has been played out, and it has been shown not to work in the real world no matter how much sense it seems to make and no matter how much initial results seem to prove its merit. In the end, it results in individuals who are fatter. Did you know 66% of dieters are fatter 2 years later than they were before the diet (6)? The eat less approach is partly responsible in my mind.
5) There is more than one way to control insulin. You can either control the amount of food you eat (a bad idea if you follow the above arguments) or focus on the type of food you eat. Eating less starch, more protein, and higher fiber, and doing so more frequently is highly beneficial to insulin levels. It may not lower insulin to the same degree as fasting or eating less frequent meals, but it will do so in a way that is less likely to cause wild swings in blood sugar that then cause hunger spikes, cravings, and energy lows.
The idea that frequent eating is some people’s problem is something I would adamantly disagree with. People’s issues with food are almost always about food choices, which lead to more food and disrupted hormones at that meal and meals to come. It is really about WHAT people are eating, not how often. The truth as I see it is many people eat the wrong things too often which is the worst of all worlds.
Here is a quick protocol we use at ME with beginners to the fat loss lifestyle. Notice how there is a gradual transition from frequent eating to other approaches on meal frequency. It may also be interesting to see the use of “nighttime fasting”.
1) Start with 4 to 6 meals per day eaten every two to four hours. Eat when you are NOT hungry to avoid overeating and increase the chances of making better choices..
2) Avoid food from 10-14 hours nightly (depending on burner type).
3) Adjust your carb tipping point based on your responses to hunger, cravings, and energy.
4) Find your fat loss formula by adjusting the carb tipping point, searching for and removing trigger foods, and controlling lifestyle factors like sleep & stress.
5) Once the metabolism is healed, healthy and less reactive, meal timing is adjusted. Experimenting with less frequent eating becomes possible and more beneficial (because there is less risk of compensatory reactions). This usually takes between 3 to 12 months to get to this point for most of our clients.
4) Epel, et. al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001;26(1):37-49