Does meal frequency matter at all?
In a previous post, I dismantled the idea that eating 6 mini meals per day is required to boost your metabolism and burn fat. One reason was that, with all things being equal, you burn the same number of calories per day digesting all of your food from 6 meals as you would with eating 3 meals per day.
And then I mentioned that I put a lot of focus towards meal frequency to help my clients eat fewer meals per day. That may have left you wondering….
“But Sean, you said that 3 meals per day would burn the same number of calories as 6 meals per day, so why do you care?”
Well, if you want to count calories the rest of your life and don’t care about feeling well nourished from your meals, then it probably doesn’t make any difference. But who wants to live like that?
It’s really difficult to eat according to your body’s signals when you’re only letting yourself experience a very narrow range of physical sensations.
Let’s say for illustrative purposes, that when you eat meals, you eat until an “8” on the fullness scale. And then when you drop down to a “2”, it’s time to eat again. “8” lets you feel truly nourished and “2” for you means that you’re hungry enough to fully enjoy your meal, but without being ravenous. There’s a big range between an 8 and 2, and by definition multiple points in between, so you have a wide array of physical sensations that you can tune in to to guide your eating.
But when you’re eating frequent mini-meals, you’re operating in a much smaller range. You can’t get too hungry, or a mini-meal won’t end hunger. And you can’t get true satisfaction, because you need to be able to eat again in 2-3 hours.
Now, instead of operating between “2” and “8, you’re constantly alternating between a “4” and a “6”.
Semi-satisfaction is a lot harder to listen to than true satisfaction. You need jedi-level body listening skills to eat the right amount of food over 6 meals while purely listening to your body (instead of only letting yourself eat pre-packed 250 calorie “meals”).
In other words, it’s easier to OVEREAT with more frequent meals (even if it never feels like overeating).
By getting your food consolidated to fewer feedings (no less than 3, though), you put yourself in the position where you can get clear signals from your body about your portion sizes.
Making it easier to listen to your body is a pretty huge reason. But there are a few other advantages too:
1) Enjoyment! You’re less likely to feel like you’re on a “diet” and abandon your nutrition plan altogether.
2) Practicality. It’s easier to pack and plan for 3 meals than it is for 6 mini-meals.
3) Less obsessing about food. The more frequently you eat, the more frequently you need to think about food. “Shit! Do I have my next meal ready-to-go?”, “Is it time to eat yet?!?!”, “Oh no! What happens if this meeting doesn’t end in time to eat my next meal?”. This quickly becomes a burden, adding significant stress to already stressful days.
4) The best defense is a good offense. When you don’t get true satisfaction, the countdown to needing to eat again quickly starts ticking. And when eating 6 times per day, you have a greater chance of your eating times getting interrupted than if you’re only eating 3 times per day. If you get involved in a task that you expected to take 2 hours, but it actually takes 3 hours, now you’re going to feel off kilter. And maybe you missed your chance to eat again for a while. Now, you’re going to be more likely to get so hungry that you end up eating too much and too quickly the next time you can eat.
My primary objective when working with clients is to set the stage for weight loss by helping you get the most satisfaction per calorie. If you can make a change that enables you to feel more satisfied while also getting fewer calories, that’s a change that’s more likely to stick long enough to see your body change.
Step one is to make sure you’re eating enough food at your meals (typically 3-4 per day) so that you will be less likely to feel drawn to snacking or mindless eating between meals. Of course, meal balance plays a role here, as a meal with a reasonable balance of protein, carbs, and fat will keep you satisfied longer than an unbalanced meal.
To burn fat, you need to eat fewer calories per day than you take in. But to try to eat “less” without eating enough food at the right times can set you up for trouble. First, we need to make sure you’re eating enough. And then we can find places to make reasonable decreases.
If you want me to help you find the right balance for your meals, meal frequency that works for you, and address any other causes for taking in too many calories, I invite you to try out your first month in the Habit Project. Click HERE to learn more.