Thursday, July 14, 2011

Few Large Meals or Many Small Meals? That's the question

How often should you eat?

There is conflicting advice on the issue of meal timing, frequency, and skipping meals at certain time (breakfast, dinner, etc). We usually hear that skipping breakfast is bad since people who skip breakfast are prone to be obese (1). The thing with skipping breakfast is that people who skip breakfast are more likely to live unhealthy lifestyles so there may be other cofounding factors (other factors not evaluated as the cause of obesity in these people, for example not exercising or increased frequency of fast food ingestion-both unhealthy activities).

Then there is the conflicting information of meal frequency. Some people say three times a day is Ok and even some says is better. Then you have your gym buddies who tell you have to eat 6 times a day to get your muscle bulging. So who is right? The explanation about increasing meal frequency is that if you eat more frequently you have
your metabolism always of burning mode (burning more calories) while if you increase the time between meals you will slow down your metabolism. Now, guys and gals, let me ask you a question? Do you know the first law of thermodynamics?

What tha'heck is this guy asking that for? Well, you will say why? Any piece of food has an energy value associated with it. If you eat 200 grams of white bread you get 722 kilocalories (data from the USDA database for White bread , enriched). That is what is stored chemically on the 200 grams of bread. It does not matter if you feast all your bread at once or if you slice your bread in 10 portion of 20 grams and eat it in 10 different times during the day. You get the same calories and thus, your metabolism will expend the same amount of energy in each case. So there is no cranking-up of your fat-burning metabolism with high meal frequency nor there is slowing down if you eat less frequently. Want more scientific proof (not the simple example I gave you) then go to this study (2).

Well, maybe if you eat more frequently, you will get more satiated and control your hunger better. Wrong again. A recent study (3) actually suggests the contrary. Eating more frequently reduces satiety in obese men but eating less and high-protein meals allows for better appetite control.

So what's best?
As one of my professors answered to many student's questions: It depends!! On what?
It depends on you. It all boils downs of what is best for you. There will be people who will be comfortable eating six times a day other just 2 or 3. You decide. Hunger is not a bad thing, but you have to let it happen naturally. Do not force it, if sometime you feel like skipping breakfast or dinner, go ahead and rip the benefits of IF (Intermittent Fasting).

Think in evolutionary terms. Do you think our ancestors were regimented about eating six, 4 or three times a day every day. I don't think so. More likely there were to feast when food was available (after a successful hunt) and fast when food was scarce or limited.

(1) Deshmukh-Taskar PR, Nicklas TA, O'Neil CE, Keast DR, Radcliffe JD,
Cho S. The relationship of breakfast skipping and type of breakfast
consumption with nutrient intake and weight status in children and
adolescents: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
1999-2006. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 Jun;110(6):869-78.
(2) Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E.(2009). Increased meal frequency does
not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an
8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2010

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