You do NOT need to eat six meals a days

One nutrition myth that people throw around way too much is that you should eat six small meals a day for weight loss. There are a number or reasons why this shouldn’t be a thing, but let’s start with our figurative gut reaction before we dive into our literal gut reaction.

True or False: Eating more meals a day will help me lose weight.

If that statement sounds and feels false, that’s because it is.

Six small meals a day has been the downfall of so many people trying to lose weight, and yet plenty of doctors and nutritionists still recommend it. This is because of the many misconceptions surrounding this diet strategy, which stresses unimportant elements of a proper diet while ignoring crucial ones. That is why today we are holding a funeral for six small meals a day. Here is what we’re writing on the tombstone:

1.     Stoking your metabolism isn’t something you need to worry about.

The biggest argument in favor of this diet strategy likens your metabolism to a fire,  which you need to keep adding wood (i.e., food) to it if you want it to keep burning (calories, in this case).  This isn’t a thing.

Eating does stoke your metabolism, but mostly in the sense that when you put food in your body, your body starts metabolizing it. No matter where you eat, how much you eat, or what time you eat, your metabolism will respond to the demands put upon it.  There is no added benefit of snacking or eating multiple small meals. In fact, it might hurt more than it helps.

2.     Insulin makes you fat.

Insulin is one of the major causes of weight gain; high insulin levels have a direct link to obesity.[1] Eating six meals a day tends to increase insulin levels in the blood.

Why does this happen?

First, let’s understand the role of insulin. In the most basic sense, insulin regulates your blood sugar.  When you eat your blood glucose levels rise, and your pancreas releases insulin to utilize that glucose for energy. This happens between 30 and 90 minutes after you eat, and your insulin levels stay raised for the next two to five hours. So if you eat little meals all day long, and those meals contain any refined sugar or carbohydrates, you are constantly spiking your insulin levels.

3.     You are not a cow.

You are not a cow! So don’t adopt a cow’s eating habits.

Another pro-six meals argument is that humans are meant to graze like cows and gorillas. Although we share 98 percent of our genes with gorillas, the way our digestive tract functions is part of that remaining 2 percent.  If you want to act like a gorilla, become a true herbivore and just eat vegetables all day long—that’s perfectly healthy. Just be aware that gorillas eat 40 pounds of veggies each day (and a fair number of insects along with it) to maintain that physique.[2]

However, humans are omnivores. You are an omnivore. It doesn’t matter if you choose to be vegan, pescatarian, or a carnivore, you only have one stomach, and it functions the same as everyone else’s.  Your body doesn’t need to be constantly fed. If you are always hungry, that is likely a function of nutrient deficiency, not a biological need to graze.

4.     Don’t eat when you aren’t hungry.

This one is incredibly intuitive: if you don’t feel hungry, don’t eat.  If you force yourself to eat when you aren’t hungry, you will likely end up eating more food than you would otherwise.

Most people start their day off with a meal because breakfast is “the most important meal of the day.” In reality, breakfast is the least important meal of the day. If you wake up feeling hungry in the morning, have breakfast—obviously you shouldn’t starve yourself. But if you are like most people, you probably won’t have a true desire to consume anything for a few hours. Start your day off with water, coffee, or tea, and wait to eat until you are hungry. Most likely this will help decrease your total calories consumed during the day.

The biggest question is still, how did this myth get so far without being put down by others? The answer is likely that the six-meals-a-day strategy works for building muscle. If you want to be a professional strongman, you’ll need to consume six meals a day simply to get enough calories to build the kind of muscle you need to compete. If your goal is anything short of being a 400-pound strongman, though, you can adopt a different diet strategy. Just remember that dieting is pretty intuitive: eating more makes you gain weight, eating less helps you lose it!

Here are three things to try instead of six small meals a day:

1.     Don’t snack.

2.     Replace processed sugars with natural ones (e.g., ice cream for fruit).

3.     Eat nutrient-dense meals to decrease hunger between meals

(e.g., protein, veggies, and starchy veggies). 

[1] http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/299/3/E506.short

[2] http://ucdintegrativemedicine.com/2016/03/youre-not-cow-gorilla-dont-eat-like-one-either/#gs.Ssxi06M

Jake Dermer