There is a pretty standard aspect of a fitness competition diet that requires you to eat a small meal every 2-3 hours instead of going longer periods of time and eating larger meals. But do you know why?
A lot of people believe that eating small meals more frequently increases their metabolism and this is the main reason that eating many small meals is touted as effective for weight loss.
This myth has been disproved many times, but the reason it exists in the first place is because of research about the thermic effect of food… the WHAAAAA?! you say. The thermic effect of food is basically the fact that it takes a certain amount of energy in order to process the food we eat (which gives us energy). The fitness community took the information and assumed that if you are always eating a small amount of food, you are always having to digest and therefore you will always be burning calories. That’s a pretty solid argument. Unfortunately the thermic effect of food is only related to the quantity of the food you eat and the type of food, not how often you are eating.
On average about 15% of the calories that you get from food are required just to digest that food. Certain foods are much higher than that which is where the whole “negative” calorie foods come in. Meat is generally a bit harder to digest and has a thermic effect of around 30%, but is also calorie dense. Complex carbs take a lot of energy to be processed into glycogen that can be used for energy and are also thermic at around 10% -30% depending on the source. The EASIEST foods to digest and the lowest thermic effect is… guess…
Go on guess…
That’s right, sugar and fat. Simple carbs are very easily processed by your body into fuel, as is fat. Both these food sources have a thermic effect of a measly 3%.
No wonder high protein diets work right?
So if the whole eating frequently to boost metabolism thing is a myth… why do I do it?
There are some really great reasons to eat frequently and the main reasons are:
- I really like eating! I’m serious, I really like that I can look forward to another snack or meal in just a couple of hours. This is probably a psychological issue on my part, but hey, I like it and it works for me, so why not.
- It helps you get the right macros. Personally, I don’t really have a problem with this because I’m fine with eating a 12 oz steak in one go 😉 but I know a lot of people can’t eat that much meat at one time. Eating 4-6 oz portions, 5 times during the day will get you well above you 1g / pound of body weight goal for protein
- It helps regulate blood sugar. This has 2 sides… on the plus side it keeps your insulin level steady which helps spare muscle (yay!) and improves satiety. On the other hand, you almost always have insulin present which means you are “anabolic” (gaining mode) and this can be detrimental to fat loss. However, this side effect can be improved by reducing or excluding carbs from some of the meals. Many people do this by excluding carbs from their evening meals. This keeps insulin levels low and allows your body to access fat stores for fuel.
- It helps you put on lean muscle. This ties into point 3, by keeping insulin present the body is in an anabolic mode. If you are sitting on the coach that is going to mean fat, BUT if you are lifting heavy in the gym that means those calories are going to go straight into your muscles! This is also why simple carbs are recommended right after a workout if you are trying to gain muscle… they increase insulin levels and insulin helps shuttle the glycogen into the muscles and repair them.
Some downsides to eating frequently:
- It trains your body to be hungry. This is frequently touted as a positive because it means your metabolism is revving, but the real reason for this is the small spike in insulin and cortisol after every meal. If you are training hard you are probably pretty insulin sensitive (that’s a good thing) which means that a drop in blood sugar will make you feel hungry, and not surprisingly, you blood sugar tends to drop about 2-3 hours after a meal. That hunger is temporary because your blood sugar will naturally level off as your insulin levels decrease, but if you always respond to that hunger with food, you won’t realize that and the cycle will continue.
- It can inhibit fat loss. Fat is utilized very effectively during fasting periods like overnight, but throughout the day there is a stead supply of calories (if you are eating enough which I hope you are) so the body uses those calories instead of fat. This is also to do with the insulin that is constantly present when eating frequently.
So what am I trying to say here?
There are good reasons to eat small frequent meals, but the most common reason is not valid. You should analyze whether it’s really helping you achieve your goals. If you prefer eating fewer, larger meals you are not at a disadvantage for losing weight, though you may have a harder time gaining or retaining muscle. There are 3 things that are paramount to eating for fitness and body composition at the end of the day:
- Calories are still king – you can’t eat 4000 calories a day and expect to lose weight (unless you are Jay Cutler and actually need that many calories), alternatively you can’t eat 1200 calories a day and expect to not crash your metabolism. You need to find a happy medium where your metabolism is happy, you can actually operate with good energy levels and still maintain the body composition you want, I’m trying to work my way to about 2000 cals per day.
- Nutrient timing is key – even if you choose to only eat 3 meals a day, you need to make sure that your pre and post workout nutrition is solid and supporting your goals. Get your carbs in around your workout and make sure you are eating protein that is easily absorbed right after a workout (whey powder is great).
- Macros count – Regardless of whether you are eating 1 meal or 9 meals, your protein, fat and carb intake should still match your goals, so if you don’t think you can manage eating a large amount of a particular macro at one point… split it up and eat smaller more frequent meals 😉