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Meal Frequency

My First Proper English Sunday Roast - The Spread Eagle, Camden London

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Like many before me, when I was new to the game of fitness I held the common misconception put forth, that people should eat every 2-3 hours or 5 to 6 times a day.

It had worked for me in the past, and like many biased coaches if it worked for me I had come to the conclusion it would work for everybody, that was until I realized that my job as a coach was not to preach what worked for me, but rather help people discover what works for them.

Sometimes that includes methods I don’t necessarily ‘approve of for myself…

Being relatively new to the fitness industry, I also took what I was taught in school — and yes, this mentality is still unfortunately being taught to the majority of students coming from dietetics schools, personal training certifications, kinesology/human kinetics schools, many ‘nutritionist’ certifications, world-wide, to this day — and applied it without question.

That was until I got really busy with personal training about 4 years ago, and found myself trying to fit in workouts at different times of day quite sporadically, mostly whenever I could find an hour or a half hour in a day.

See the grazing, eat 5 meals a day thing, works wonders when you want your energy to be felt consistently over the course of a day and you plan on working out at the exact same time every day.

It’s essentially an exercise in ‘conditioning‘ and I don’t mean elevate your heart rate, I mean Pavlov’s Dog.

When life is predictable, your body gets used to the frequency of eating and so you feel hungry at the same time every day, much like a dog will salivate at the sound of a bell — there are other cues to be worried about for sure too, like boredom, behaviors at work, interruptions, habitual eating, emotional eating, and other forms of relatively ‘mindless’ eating.

What happens though when that hunger hits in the hour that I suddenly had available to train myself?

A significant drop-off in my performance, that’s what.

I could mostly curb it a little with some modifications — read: supplements, the topic for another post but typically a liquid BCAA, whey protein or caffeine in the form of coffee or tea – but I almost always felt lethargic exercising at certain times of day that were not my ‘usual‘ time of day, because my pre-workout nutrition wasn’t up to snuff.

Proving perhaps that there is a benefit to a good routine, and there is a possible downside.

If you work chaotically like I do, too much of a routine can mean being really hungry in the middle of a client hour, to the point where it becomes distracting.

This prompted me to look into the actual science of meal frequency and the history behind it’s ubiquity in the fitness industry.

The History

The notion of this high-frequency type of eating can be found in an assumption — incorrectly, but we’ll discuss that in a minute —  that eating every 2-3 hours, would ‘raise’ metabolism, control insulin by reducing insulin ‘spikes‘  and reduce hunger, under the pretence that reducing the feeling of hunger means less binging.

An increase of metabolism, a decrease in binging and ‘hunger,‘ along with a reduction in insulin spiking was thought to have some relevance to weight loss.

The actual science that compares the same break-down of calories per day, spread out over various kinds of frequency — 3 meals a day vs 6 for instance — yields no discernible difference for weight loss.

These studies do tend to be short-term though, and don’t necessarily break-down the science of nutrient timing, or ‘when’ you’re eating – which is probably more important than general frequency, mind you — but the shear volume of eating, and the quality of the energy you take in, are probably significantly more important that just how frequently you eat.

In my experience, the grazing method, in some cases it might help certain individuals maintain or possibly lose weight but that’s probably only from a purely psychological belief or placebo effect, and not what the science actually tells us.

Don’t get me wrong, the placebo effect can actually be a really powerful tool when it comes to health, nutrition and weight loss.

Essentially though, we know that if you believe something will work — even if there is NO or ‘very little’ science to back it up — it will probably work.

This is why really good research studies feature some kind of placebo control group — actually double-blind studies are best, where both the researcher and the participant don’t know what is what until after the experiment has be concluded.

Back to my story…

Now in my defence as to why I followed a 5-meal a day eating habit for so many years, is that, I was coming from an athletic background where I found that 5 meals a day significantly helped me maintain my ‘game weight‘ and also left my energy levels feeling about even for a rigorous practice schedule – which was the same time of day, every day.

Essentially that placebo; I believed it to be working, therefore it probably worked.

The minute though that I changed the variable, not being able to train at the same time every day, well, my beliefs started to change too.

It’s easy to do what you believe.

If you eat 4-6 times a day right now and find that it helps you maintain your weight, keep doing it.

If you’ve been trying what you’ve been told by weight loss professionals, nutritionists, authors, or dieticians for years (eating smaller meals spaced throughout the day) and aren’t seeing any weight loss gains, well then maybe it’s time to shake things up.

You may even have your own story to tell as it reflects upon times where you found yourself hungry and someone irritated by it, because of the routine you’ve established in your eating.

The truth is, most people don’t really know what ‘actual hunger‘ is, because in this-day-in-age you don’t go longer than a day without food.

As an experiment, seriously, try not to eat anything for one day, you’ll be incredibly amazed by what actual hunger feels like by the end of the day.

Just make sure you still drink water O.K.?

Does Frequency Matter?

It doesn’t seem to, I know of friends, family and colleagues that all eat differently and yet maintain good body fat levels, some fast regularly, others irregularly, some eat twice a day, some once a day, some still stick to the 3 square meals and others do the 4-6 meal thing.

They are all valid to some degree, as they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

In my work, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘change‘ is what matters, especially if progress is stagnant.

If you graze now, consider dropping a meal or two, shake things up. If you eat 3 square meals a day, try the grazing method, maybe you shake things up a little by seeing how that works for you.

If you want to go a little extreme maybe you look into Intermittent Fasting — in which case you should read this free book and check out this blog before you do anything — but I’m only throwing that out there as a strategy for stubborn nutritional issues, I definitely think it is a more advanced nutritional strategy than I typically discuss on this blog.

I don’t fast personally on a regular basis though I’ve played with it sparingly, my opinion of which is the topic for another article.

Here is the process I used to switch up my eating routine, to make it a little more sporadic, I found I gained more energy throughout the day by roughly eliminating my hunger pains at specific times of day.

Do I still get hungry? Sure…

And when I do, generally now I just eat, rather than watching the clock and I no longer get the growling stomach at breakfast, 10 AM, 1 PM, 4 PM and 7 PM like I used to.

Nor do I find that I get that lethargic feeling from not having a regular schedule (it works for me…), because my body tolerates a semi-fasted state a lot better, so I’m getting a lot more out of sporadic workouts without the pounding head or stomach growling.

  1. Pull one meal out, most likely one of your smaller meals and see if you can spread out your meals differently.
  2. Typically it takes about 2-4 weeks to settle in to the new routine, don’t be surprised if you feel hungry at odd times for the first little while, or feel lethargic and/or intellectually off and easily irritated.
  3. Water, or other non-caloric liquids can be good to briefly convince your brain that you are sticking to your old pattern of eating, try to consume at least 2 L per day of non-caloric beverages still.
  4. Pull a second meal out, and repeat.
  5. I recommend you don’t go below 2 meals per day — but absolutely don’t go below 1 meal per day, which is essentially just a kind of fasting, depending on how you do it —  and realize that if you do get to that point no biggie either.
  6. Feel free to go back to grazing if after 3-6 months you find this strategy doesn’t work for you, I believe diet to be an iterative process that we’re all kind of working on continuously.
These days I’m eating 3 square meals, with the odd snack typically before and/or after a workout.
What works for you?
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by Darren Beattie

Coach, Writer and Founder of SBF.com, Fettle and Koachable.com. I'm going to change how you think about fitness and coaching. Quality of Life Crusader. Knowledge Junkie. Recovering perfectionist.

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2 comments… add one

  1. I really love your articles here. Keep up the great work!

    I find I tend to fluctuate from day-to-day. Some days I’ll naturally prefer 4 meals, other days 3, on rare days 2 meals and on other rare days 5 smaller meals.

    I find it eat best by simply listening to the rhythm of my body on a given day and not assigning a specific amount to what I need for that specific day. Since everyday is different and I feel differently and approach it differently. It works well for me. I’ve noticed my natural rhythm is around 3 meals and 1 snack or 4 smaller meals most day.

    I used to try create a set number of meals too and could never manage it well. I always felt 5 meals to be too many and 3 too little. It actually made me either hate eating or simply want to overeat. So now I just let my body do the talking and let each day speak for itself.

    Again, thanks for the awesome website!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the comment Tameka. Glad to see you’ve found what seems to work for you, many people don’t.

    Reply

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