You want to lose weight, so you go on a diet. It encourages smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, claiming you will rev up your metabolism and curb overeating. I don’t need to point fingers here. There are countless diets, studies, and even health professionals that recommend this rule of grazing.
What if I were to tell you, however, that this small meal/high frequency plan is actually what I put people on when they want to gain weight? (Yikes.)
Is it possible that this way of eating can benefit both groups of people? Or, is one being misguided?
THE PROS OF GRAZING: WHAT DIETS CLAIM
– You never feel so ravenous that you’re prone to overeating to the point of discomfort.
– Going too long without eating can slow metabolism.
– It provides a constant energy supply.
– It works for Jennifer Aniston, and don’t you want to look like Jennifer Aniston?!
THE CONS OF GRAZING: WHAT RESEARCH SAYS
– Our “mini” meals may not be quite as mini as we think, so instead of six small meals a day, we’re eating the caloric equivalent of six full meals a day. Oops.
– Going too long without eating can slow your metabolism, but “too long” is more like six hours or more. Skipping full meals can work against you, but waiting to eat a meal until around that five hour mark is beneficial. (Eating every five hours works out to be around three meals a day.)
– When we eat too frequently, we have a constant circulation of insulin. You know it as that stuff that controls blood sugar, but it is also a very powerful fat promoting hormone; it turns on the body’s processes for creating and storing fat. Not so great when we want to lose weight!
– We don’t solve the real issue of overeating: relying on external cues to start and stop eating, like emotions, convenience, habit, and the sight and smell of food. Sure, feeling too hungry can lead to eating too much and too quickly, but feeling adequately hungry is just a normal part of life. It’s our bodies saying, “Hey! It’s time to eat now!” When we eat every two or three hours, we tend not to feel hunger strongly or at all.
– You have to constantly think about food. Rather than eating, enjoying it, and moving on to other wonderful things in life until the next meal, you finish eating and almost immediately have to start thinking about what to eat at the next snack. It’s exhausting!
– It may harm our digestive tracts.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FLOP!
Can you lose weight by eating small meals frequently throughout the day? Probably, if you understand what “small” means for your body.
However, too often, this idea of grazing only perpetuates underlying problems: overeating, obsessing or worrying about food, ignoring hunger signals, and trying to be in control rather than in charge of your body.
It is far better for the human metabolism to space out meals, and preliminary research even suggests that a long overnight fast (12-14 hours) may be critical. We need to fuel our bodies regularly throughout the day, but “regularly” is only three meals and maybe one mini snack, depending on how your meals fall. If you eat breakfast at 6:30am and lunch at 1pm, yes, you probably need something mid-morning to tide you over; if breakfast is at 8am and lunch is at noon, probably not.
Here’s the rub, though: if you take this article to heart and start rigidly eating only every five hours because I said so, you would still be ignoring your body’s important messages over some external cue (me). Listen to your body. Are you physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Is your stomach growling, or is it just “time” to eat? If you’re unsure, wait twenty minutes. Either you will forget about eating, in which case you were not truly hungry to begin with, or you will get more hungry and therefore more confident that food is the appropriate solution.
Research overwhelmingly supports set meals over constant snacks, but you may feel hungry before that four or five hour mark. If that’s the case, eat something, but also take a look at what you had the meal before; perhaps it was too low in calories, a certain nutrient (carbs, protein, or fat), or fiber to hold you that long. Make a note of it and tweak it next time.
Life is really just one big experiment, anyway. Don’t be afraid to try something new and see where it takes you. You may be surprised.