I’ll hear that question a lot during an initial consultation with a client. And I’m glad they ask. There’s a lot of confusion regarding how often we should eat during the day.
Our bodies operate as incredibly efficient machines. The body continually looks for the path of least resistance. That’s one reason why doing the same workout over and over again will yield less and less results. Your body adapts to become more efficient and burn less energy.
Your body works just as efficiently with the food you’re eating. So, if you go 14 hours between meals, your body will do its best to conserve energy. That means its going to store calories. Stored calories means stored fat and a slower basal metabolic rate. That’s the premise for eating at shorter intervals, like every three hours. But does that work?
Research shows eating at shorter intervals during the day does not affect basal metabolic rate (BMR). It won’t speed up your metabolism, as has often been claimed. The most proven and well-researched fix for increasing BMR is, surprise, exercise!
So does the timing of your meals have any affect? A lot of dieticians subscribe to the “eat when you feel hungry” philosophy. Let me share my problem with that approach. How many of the most important aspects of our health do we regulate to feelings? If I flossed my teeth only when I felt like it, I wouldn’t ever need to buy dental floss. Even if we apply that philosophy to something closer to nutrition, it doesn’t jive. Should we wait to drink water until we’re thirsty? Of course not. Water consumption is often a discipline because we know its vital importance to our health. Nutrition is the same.
Many dieticians don’t advocate more meals during the day because they fear overeating. That’s legitimate. But if you have a hard time stopping once you start eating, the answer isn’t to limit how many times you eat. You need to ask yourself why you have a hard time. Are you an emotional eater responding to stress or sadness? Is it simply a tactile response, and you just like to snack? Or have you programmed yourself to eat too large of meals? It may take a while to reprogram your body to healthy patterns, but it will pay dividends for your health.
I encourage my clients to eat every three hours, which equates to about five times a day. It’s easiest to think of three small meals and two small snacks. The rationale? This interval helps keep your blood sugar level from dropping too low and thereby increasing cortisol release and fat storage. Dr. Pauline Harding notes, “Any time during the day that one does not eat within five hours of the previous meal or snack, the cortisol level tends to rise.” I won’t reiterate all the problems associated with high cortisol levels.
Meals become especially important post workout. Your body craves nutrients, especially protein, after a workout to fuel muscle recovery and development. This is the only time I recommend eating something that doesn’t qualify as low glycemic. Protein shakes or bars are normally highly processed, making them high glycemic. They’re beneficial post workout because your blood sugar drops and you need a faster delivery to aid recovery.
“So, how often should I eat?” The American Dietetic Association suggests making a schedule and eating small meals every three or four hours. They recommend doing so long enough to learn what hunger feels like. I recommend doing it to keep your blood sugar and hormone levels within a health range. Give it a shot. Go small on your three main meals and add a few low-glycemic snacks in between. Fruit and vegetables make great snacks. Some of my favorites include sliced zucchini with hummus, braised kale with a fried egg, kale chips, a green smoothie, and an apple with natural peanut butter.
Most importantly, you MUST eat breakfast. Another poor side effect of following the “eat when you’re hungry” philosophy is not eating breakfast. Most people I talk to don’t wake up hungry. But, according to the research, if you skip breakfast you increase your risk of becoming overweight. Eating breakfast actually does increase your metabolism. It also helps boost your energy levels, increase your focus, and stabilize your cortisol. It really, truly is the most important meal of the day. All the experts agree on that one.