Rethinking Six Small Meals a DayPosted on Jan 24th 2011 3:00PM by Jonny Bowden
The "cheat day" is not alone. In fact, there are dozens of weight loss principles that are often repeated, but won't work for everyone. One of my favorites to debunk is: "Eat six small meals a day."
It comes in various forms, including "eat three big meals and two snacks" or "eat every two to three hours."
Certainly sounds good, doesn't it? Trouble is, it's just not true.
Or at least not always true. And it's not true often enough to make it a questionable golden rule of fitness.
The "eat five (or six) small meals a day" concept came out of the same culture that the "cheat day" did -- the bodybuilding culture of the 1950s. (In fact, many of the things we repeat as gospel today came out of that same culture, including the idea that you have to give each muscle group a couple of days off before training it again.)
The theory here is that since your body actually uses some calories digesting food and digestion is a metabolic process, eating a meal theoretically "raises" your metabolism, so by eating small meals frequently, you constantly keep your metabolism elevated.
Every time you eat a meal your blood sugar goes up and the pancreas responds with a shot of insulin. When people have absolutely normal metabolisms, with no issues around carbohydrate processing, this system works fine. But in people for whom blood sugar response to food -- and even more important, insulin response to blood sugar -- is kind of off kilter, eating frequently may actually work against your purposes.
The constant elevation of blood sugar (and the fat-storing hormone insulin) ensures that the body will never have to reach into its stores of fat to find energy to burn, since there's constant supply of glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream (thanks to that meal you ate a couple hours ago and are about to repeat).
Fact is, as many people can attest to from personal experience, it's perfectly possible to do quite well on three squares a day. Snacking isn't necessary and, in some cases, may be counterproductive. For some people, keeping insulin low for most of the day sets up a favorable metabolic environment and may also keep cravings at bay. (This was the basis of the "Carbohydrate Addicts Diet.")
And let's not even talk about the fact that most people haven't the slightest idea of what the "small" in "six small meals" refers to. Our sense of portion size has been so distorted by routine restaurant eating that many of us have come to classify a meal that would fill out the flat side of a Bosu ball as a "snack."
The bottom line is this: If eating every three hours or so is working for you, that's great. If you really feel better on such a routine, by all means carry on.
But if you're one of the many people who just don't get it and for whom frequent snacking (or the "grazing" way of eating) causes you to think about food all the time, produces cravings and results in overeating, don't beat yourself up. You may be one of the people for whom the mantra of "eating to keep your metabolism up" just isn't true.
And if that's so, don't be afraid to go back to basics: three definite meals, each with a beginning and an end, each nutritionally dense and filling.
And nothing in between.
Jonny Bowden, author, nutritionist and weight loss coach, cuts through all the misconceptions about diet and fitness to help you transform your body, your health and your life. Visit his website to learn more or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jonnybowden. You can also download his free audio course, "7 Supplements You Need Now."