Does Eating Frequency Matter?

May 15, 2012 in Categories: , , , by

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A quick google search will yield hundreds of resources telling you that the healthiest way to eat is to graze, to eat small quantities nearly constantly throughout the day.  When I had gestational diabetes with my first daughter, I was told never to let more than 3 hours pass between meals or snacks.  Like so many people, this dogma was completely ingrained in my psyche (at least until researching a paleo diet challenged me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about nutrition).  I remember going on a complete rant with my poor baby brother about the importance of eating more frequently during the day and of never skipping breakfast.  How embarrassing to find out later that my brother’s natural tendency to eat just one big meal a day is actually healthier for him than the 6 small meals a day that I was trying to talk him into. 

Like so many of the current dietary recommendations made by doctors, nutritionists and the FDA (like eating low-fat or eating whole grains), the idea that eating frequent small meals is better for you is based on bad science and assumptions.  The science which supports increased eating frequency is based on correlative studies (basically surveys), which have shown that the more frequently a person eats, the more likely that person is to be a healthy weight.  However, this correlation disappears completely once exercise is accounted for (a fact that is often ignored when the case is being made for more frequent meals).  Prospective studies (where people are put on specific diets and then monitored for health and weight changes) have universally shown that increasing eating frequency results in no benefit in normal weight individuals and results in a tendency toward weight gain and higher risk of diabetes in already overweight people.

Analysis of Hunter-Gatherer populations (modern and historically studied) shows that these populations typically eat one large meal in the afternoon or evening.  A small meal of leftovers is sometimes ingested in the mornings as are small amounts of food as it is gathered (information Dr. Loren Cordain’s blog www.thepaleodiet.com and from The Paleo Answer).  Not only does this not look anything like the 5-6 small meals a day that are advocated for optimal metabolism, but it doesn’t even look like the 3 “square” meals that increased eating frequency is compared against!  When we start to consider eating one meal per day (without restricting calories), there are some interesting research findings.  One study showed that eating one meal per day in the absence of calorie restriction improves body composition, cardiovascular risk factors and reduces cortisol1.  Another study showed that eating one meal per day reduces inflammation by blunting the ability of circulating white blood cells (specifically monocytes) to produce cytokines (chemical messengers of inflammation)2.  There is also speculation that decreased meal frequency would result in decreased oxidative stress and increased leptin and insulin sensitivity.  However, another study shows lower glucose tolerance by eating one meal per day3 (although this is not a bad thing in the context of a lower carbohydrate diet).  Although compelling, these studies are not sufficient to make a case for one meal per day.  The fact is that this field is so under researched that a strong case for any meal frequency simply can not be made.

So, how often should you eat?  I think the most important thing that you can do is to listen to your body.  Eat when you are hungry and eat until you are full. I think the far bigger contributor to your health is what you choose to eat and not when or how often you choose to eat it.  Although, I will also throw out the caveat that if you are substantially overweight or have elevated cortisol levels (due to adrenal fatigue or unmanaged stress), your hunger hormones are likely disregulated.  In that case, in addition to eating lower carbohydrate and concentrating on food quality, it’s important to try and space your meals (maybe 2-3 meals per day and maybe 1 snack) in an attempt to restore your hunger signals to trustworthy levels.  So, Bro–I’m so sorry!  I was wrong.  Listen to your body.  If you aren’t hungry until the evening, then don’t eat until then!

1Stote et al. “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults”. Am J Clin Nutr; 2007, 85:981-988

2Dixit et al. “Controlled meal frequency without caloric restriction alters peripheral blood mononuclear cell cytokine production” Journal of Inflammation, 2011, 8:6

3Carlson et al. “Impact of Reduced Meal Frequency Without Caloric Restriction on Glucose Regulation in Healthy, Normal Weight Middle-Aged Men and Women” Metabolism. 2007; 56(12): 1729–1734.

Comments

Thanks for a great post! As a recovering bulimic, being told to constantly graze was a recipe for disaster. Learning (or “re-learning”) to eat when I’m hungry and ONLY when I’m hungry has made it so much easier to limit my portions and make better food choices. I only wish I’d known this before I destroyed my metabolism & adrenals! Very thankful my body can heal itself if given the opportunity :)

I think the most important point made in this article is to listen to your body. There is really no such thing as the “right” way to eat. We are all unique and although we have a lot in common, we also all have varying needs to some degree. Life becomes so much easier when one accepts this. But I do agree that eating 6 meals/day is probably not a healthy habit for most people. I think 2-3 meals/day seems to be the most comfortable for most clients I work with.

Eating one meal a day is the only way I am able to lose weight, but I get so beyond cranky, tired, moody, anxious emotional and plain bitchy, that it is just not worth it.

grazing is part of the old orthodoxy for people who eat a carb rich insulin spiking diet. As you add more richness to your diet and lower the glycemic index…you will find you not only don’t want to eat all the time..you don’t need to.

I’m hungry every hour so I’m not sure what to make with the “eat when you’re hungry” folks. I’m not over weight, but when I eat too much I do go up a bit (duh). I do emotionally eat and over the last few years I think I messed up my signals with a lot of work stress, eating sugary foods, etc. Anyway, I HAVE to eat throughout the day or would be ravenous all the time. I do wish I could trust my body’s hunger signals.

That’s the way I used to be. I worked really hard to gradually increase how much I eat when I do eat and slowly space out how long before I eat again. It doesn’t need to be a fast transition, but I think you’re right that something is going on with your hunger hormones. What I did was eat until I was absolutely stuffed (protein, fat, carbs ever time I ate) and then waited until I was ravenous (however long that was) before eating until I was stuffed. It maybe took about 2 weeks to get to a point where I was eating a large meal and then fine for 5-6 hours, which is still what I do now.

I’m with ‘alittleslice’
I am legit hungry and need to eat every two hours. I drink plenty of water so I know its not my “thirst mechanism” triggering and I’m running around all day so its not boredom. But I have had the state of mind about the grazing for so long I think my body is now trained to want food. Now I don’t know what to do.

I eat when I’m hungry, that means that I sometimes eat a handfull of nuts, other times I eat a meal. This way of eating and listning to my body, ensure that my bloodsugar level never falls dangerously low, and I feel better in the long run. Listning to my body also secure my weight, meaning I never gain or loose a lot. same size jeans since I was 14.

My dear friend Laurel shared your link with me. Just kind of transitioning over to this new lifestyle. “I think the far bigger contributor to your health is what you choose to eat and not when or how often you choose to eat it.” So true. I really enjoyed the read. I love what your doing and will be following :)

So glad to see this post! It supports my gut feeling (no pun intended) that I do best eating two meals and a snack per day. My body naturally wants to have fuel in the mid-to-late morning (meal), late afternoon (meal) and evening (snack.) I have a nutritionist who keeps telling me to eat many small meals per day, and it just doesn’t work for me. The hardest time for me to eat is right after getting up in the morning, and conventional wisdom says that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I’m typically not hungry/wanting to eat until a few hours after I am up.

I have to agree over all (as stated in previous posts) your body is the best indicator and you should listen to it, but as for replacing small meals with 1 or two large meals as it pertains to the majority of the population….I have to disagree unless in specific circumstances. The problem I see with the evidence shown is 1 the longevity of the trail, 2 the date of the research, 3. the lack of accounting for external factors that effect metabolism and 4. the insurmountable amount of evidance to contridict.

In terms of longevity I can see short term glucose tolerance may be lower but in the long run 1 or 2 large blasts of glucose to the system would provide more wear on the insulin recepters then smaller regulated doses. In Stote (A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency ) the study was only over 2 2 month periods additionally, it even states the intermittent fasting causes the same effects, but you wouldn’t permentently fast. 2. Since the health and wellness revolution is progressing so quickly material dating 7 years ago isn’t really as prevelent. The 2011 study is a little more up to date and does make good points but once again lacking the longevity. Also, 1 to 2 meals a day may be able to sustain a seditary to low activity life style, but for moderately active to highly active people (which is becoming an increasing part of the population and is the larger audience to these sort of studies and blogs) I find it would be dificult to maintain daily functions and an active lifestyle on only consuming calories (fuel once or twice a day).

Either way (few large meals or several small meals) the biggest component is WHAT is being consumed. , how long it takes to break down, how it stores and is released in the body ect.

Good post though sparked a lot of Interest and further research!!!

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