One of the most common issues that I see in my daily practice is the belief that eating 5-6 times per day is a necessary and healthy habit. While there are no hard and fast rules on how many times a person should eat in a day, eating less often is a habit change that will benefit most if weight loss or maintenance is the goal.
First and foremost, let’s address what snacking really is: A concept created by corporations to sell people something they don’t need. The human body can go days without food, much less a few hours, so snacking is utterly unnecessary from an evolutionary standpoint. American corporations successfully popularized snack foods in the 1900s and it quickly became a part of middle-class identity. By hiring chemists to make snack foods as palatable and addicting as possible, snacking is now a $400 billion industry. In other news, 4 in 10 Americans are now obese while 7 in 10 are overweight. Coincidence?
But what about the myth that eating 6 times daily is good for revving metabolism and losing weight? Plain and simple, this is false. Significantly cutting calories drops metabolic rate (which is why crash diets don’t work), but when calories are equal there is no metabolic advantage to eating more meals.
Perhaps this was a message lost in translation from the bodybuilding community and applied incorrectly to the general population. If the goal is to pack on as much muscle as possible, then yes, it is helpful to eat many protein-rich meals daily (as bodybuilders have been doing for decades). If the outcome is weight loss however, eating fewer meals is a more logical approach.
The Downfalls of Snacking
- If you can’t go more than a few hours without getting hangry, that should serve as a massive red flag. The human body can run on glucose (carbs) or fats; fats are far more energy dense and a more efficient fuel source for daily activities. We are conveniently equipped with this excellent energy source in the form of body fat that serves much like a pantry stocked with food, though burning it requires the right hormonal environment.
- The problem with 6 meals is that the hormonal response to eating (insulin release) blocks the release of fat-burning enzymes. If you’re eating every 2-3 hours, your body is physiologically incapable of burning body fat for fuel. Oh, and that hangry sensation? That’s your body telling you that you are very inefficient at burning body fat because it is so accustomed to being fed frequently. If you suffer from hangriness, it’s time to stop feeding the beast every few hours and start raiding your body’s pantry.
- Eating 6 meals daily almost surely means that you are eating snack foods. While all snack foods aren’t evil (you should be able to include any kind of food in your diet, albeit in the right amounts), almost all snack foods are processed. No matter what the label of your favourite snack food says (put down the protein bar), it is not a health food. Snack foods are either high in sugar, inflammatory fatty acids, and/or contain allergens that disrupt digestion and hormones. The simplest way to improve your health- and thereby facilitate fat loss- is to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible.
- Consistent snacking means that you don’t get proper hunger or satiation cues. Select few people can get away with this (type-A individuals who never break routine, for example), but if you’re the type to order in or eat out at restaurants, this is an extremely slippery slope as far as calorie management. In a controlled environment, you can more easily manage your calories. Once out in a social situation however where emotions are more readily tied to food, your body won’t be able to tell you when you’re hungry or when you’re full. As a result, your choices will be dictated by cravings and peer pressure; a sure-fire recipe for weight gain.
The Benefits of Square Meals
- By eating meals, you will eat more whole foods thereby increasing nutrients, improving overall health, and encouraging fat loss.
- You can eat as much whole food as you want at each meal without having to count calories or stress about overeating. Yes, although energy balance does ultimately dictate body weight, when you eat real food when you're hungry, you get true fullness signalling and know when to stop eating. Believe it or not, the human body is well-equipped to avoid overeating. If you don't poison your body with fake food, it will guide you well. And on that note...
- Your body will learn to regulate proper hunger and satiation cues, a sign of hormonal health and key to sustainable weight loss.
- You will eat fewer processed foods, thereby reducing allergens & inflammation. The end result is improved digestion which further encourages fat loss. While calories are the main driver for fluctuations in body weight, digestive issues and systemic inflammation will prevent fat loss from occurring and leave your body in a chronic state of stress.
- You will increase the amount of time that insulin is absent from the bloodstream, thereby increasing the prevalence of fat-burning enzymes and prolonging a fat-burning environment.
Many people get caught up in calorie-counting and while calorie awareness is an important skill, strict counting takes most down a dangerously ineffective rabbit hole. The simplest hack in the world is to get back to basics:
Eat whole food, eat until you're full, and don't eat again until your next meal.
If you eat 6 meals daily and have found success in your methods, don’t change anything; you’ve found a system that works for you. With that said, if you’re eating 6 meals per day and can’t seem to lose weight while also suffering from energy fluctuations, lethargy, digestive distress, and/or brain fog, then it’s time to try another approach. Not only will eating fewer meals help you control calories, but it will lead to improved digestion and hormonal health, both of which will help further your quest to shed pounds.
We live in a world of convenience and abundance but you if you can eliminate the temptations of snacking, this is one simple strategy that will improve your health and help you regain control of your outcomes.