The important thing to remember about your metabolism is it is unique. As a result of that, you will have unique reactions to the amounts, types, and timing of foods.
These reactions can be observed by looking at the signs and symptoms your body exhibits as a result. I call these biofeedback clues, because they help you gather information about your metabolic needs. In this way, you are more like a detective than a dieter.
When it comes to how often you should eat you should avoid hard and fast rules and instead determine that for yourself.
How do you do that? Let me show you the way I do this with my clients.
Some overview first
A critical first point is that there is no perfect diet out there somewhere in a book, research study or magazine article. The perfect diet is the one you create from an intimate understanding of your metabolic expression, psychology and preferences.
There are very few hard and fast rules of nutrition. The most true of these rules is find and do what works for you.
If the lifestyle you create is “working,” it will meet three criteria
It will keep HEC in check. HEC is an acronym I use for hunger, energy, and cravings. I used to speak about nutrition from a hormone perspective (i.e. insulin, cortisol, leptin PYY, GIP, GLP, etc).
I stopped doing that because a far easier approach is just to look at the sensations these hormones are controlling directly or impacting indirectly. Hunger, energy, and cravings are the most notable and easy to track, but there are others.
Other hormonal “sensations,” include sleep, mood, exercise performance and recovery, libido, and other physical signs and symptoms.
Now when I use HEC it is a euphemism for all hormonal sensations in the body. If HEC is in check your hormonal metabolism is likely to be in balance.
It will optimize body composition. When optimal calorie intake and hormonal balance are achieved, the body naturally begins to optimize body composition with little effort. These ranges vary from person to person but in general men will usually easily achieve 15% body fat with such an approach and women around 20%. Typically to go lower requires effort.
The “right” lifestyle for you will either help you attain fat loss or maintain it in healthy ranges. Here at Metabolic Effect I like to use body shape (the hour glass for women and the v-shape for males as the ultimate assessment of a healthy, fit and attractive body). CALCULATE YOURS HERE
Healthy vitals and blood labs. The lifestyle that is working for you will produce positive changes in your metabolic vitals and biomarkers.
Cholesterol levels will normalize, triglycerides will move into a healthy range, fasting blood sugars will be optimized. This is where you will want to get a little more savvy and take responsibility for measuring these parameters on a regular basis. If you need help, check out the parameters we recommend you measure HERE, and you can get your blood labs done directly through our service HERE.
In addition, you should be measuring your weight, taking inch measures, and blood pressures on a regular basis. Some measures that I personally do daily are heart rate variability or HRV (check out the app I use HERE), weight and inches. I also check my blood pressure several times a week. I use this blood pressure system from Withings HERE.
A few more points before I get to eating frequency
It was important to give you an overview of how to know what is an is not working. The metabolism is not a static calculator like you have been led to believe, it is an adaptive and reactive system.
If you do things the wrong way and try to force your metabolism to do something, it will push back against you often resulting in a quick weight regain.
I call this the metabolic credit card phenomenon and have written about it many times. Check out this article for the science behind it HERE.
The metabolism is kind of like a see-saw that seeks balance. Tip it too far to one side and you are asking for trouble.
Two recent articles shed light on exactly how to approach this. One study on the biggest loser contestants showed that the extreme eat less, exercise more approach resulted in huge metabolic compensations that resulted in the biggest losers becoming the biggest gainers later. The study also showed there was permanent “metabolic damage” as a result of these extremes. See study HERE.
Another recent study, one of a few of its kind that I am aware of, showed that the metabolism does far better when fuel intake and output more closely approximate each other.
4 Metabolic Toggles (eat less, exercise more. eat more, exercise less. eat Less, exercise less. eat more, exercise more).
Here is how it works. Most people live in either and eat less, exercise more (ELEM) state or an eat more, exercise less (EMEL) state. Think of this as dieters and couch potatoes. The discussion of metabolism never goes much beyond this and is dominated by how to go from one state, the couch potato, to another state, the dieter.
Of course we now know that both these states are relatively extreme, and one often leads to the other given the compensatory nature of the metabolism. Eat less, and exercise more and after about 4-10 days your metabolism will reward you with increased hunger, unpredictable energy, elevated cravings and falling motivation for exercise. This almost assure you eventually return back to the eat more, exercise less state and regain the weight plus some.
There are two other approaches that work better. Eat less, exercise less (ELEL) (the historic European approach) and Eat more, exercise more (EMEM) (the athlete approach). Of course these are relative terms and just serve as general models because within each you can achieve slight calorie deficits or excess.
See more on the in-depth science of metabolic compensation and the 4 different approaches to eating HERE
Finally we get to eating frequency
With that we get to eating frequency. The goal in constructing the approach that works for you should be to maximize the hunger suppressing, crave lowering, and energy elevating aspects of your diet with minimal calorie intake.
This can be done by paying close attention to how your HEC fluctuates throughout the day.
Here is an example. Let’s say you are someone who is not very hungry in the morning. You don’t really like to eat, but you force yourself to because you have heard “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Should you follow the advice to eat breakfast or not?
I would say not. If HEC is in check, then your metabolism is happy and does not need you to eat. You then want to evaluate this for later in the day. Does not eating breakfast make you more or less likely to consume a greater calorie load for that day?
This is a tough question, but becomes much easier when you understand and are tracking HEC. Does not eating breakfast make you more or less likely to overeat high calorie items at lunch or not?
If not eating breakfast makes you want a burger instead of a salad for lunch than you may want to eat breakfast. If it doesn’t you are likely better off skipping breakfast. It depends on your individual reactions.
See how that works? It is not dictated by some guru or research study (including what I say), but determined by you.
How I construct eating frequency guidelines
Here is the way I construct eating frequency guidelines that will make your life, or that of your clients, much better. I use a formula that addresses some major elements of nutrition. How many meals you should you eat? What proportion of macronutrients, what timing?
Think of this in three numbers such as 3:2:1. The first number represents the number of meals you will eat in that day. The second number tells you how many of those meals will be free of starch or fat (depending on your individual tolerance). The third number says which include starch and/or fat.
So 3:2:1 means you will have three meals, two of which are free of starch and/or fat (i.e. basically lean proteins, veggies and fruits) and one that has starch and/or fat included.
I use a “structured flexibility” approach, which means this is just a guideline to start with (the structure) and then you tweak the approach as needed based on the three parameters discussed above (HEC, body comp, and vitals). That is the flexibility part.
This 3:2:1 is actually my starting guideline for an eat less, exercise less approach, but it does not have to be yours.
How about the eat more, exercise more approach? I like to start with a 4:2:2 approach. This means four meals daily, two of which are protein and fiber based (i.e. free of starch and/or fat) and two of which include starch and/or fat.
This 4:2:2 provides a starting structure. Then based on HEC (including things like exercise performance and recovery) you can get flexible and tweak. Perhaps you move to a 4:0:4 approach. Or even a 5:2:3 or 5:3:2 approach?
The right formula for you remains to be seen, but these meal structure formulas make life so much easier to keep things straight in your head.
And by the way, this works with fasting as well. If you are not eating your first meal until noon then those 4 meals, in the 4:2:2 structure, occur in a more narrow window of eating time (i.e. between 12pm and 8pm versus 8am and 8pm)
I realize this blog is in-depth, but after getting so many questions since the release of Lose Weight Here on eating frequency adjustments I thought I would cover this in detail.
The point is stop thinking in terms of off the shelf meal plans. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly. Start with any eating structure you want, you can steal my model or use someone else’s, just remember to use them as a starting guideline only.
This is why meal plans are a crutch and almost always fail. You need to tweak, adjust and sleuth, like a detective to find the eating frequency pattern that works with your lifestyle and exercise goals plus keeps HEC in check, body comp optimized, and blood labs and vitals healthy.
Forget someone telling you the meal plans, food lists, and recipes to follow. Learn to construct your own.