Like many before me, when I was new to the game of fitness I was very concerned about meal frequency.
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.
Meal Frequency History
The notion of this high meal 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, under the pretence that raising your metabolism (it doesn’t) would lead to less energy intake and thus weight loss.
By stoking the metabolic flame somehow, you’d burn more calories in a given day, simply by eating more.
An increase of metabolism, 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 in the majority of cases.
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 can be important in certain populations — 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 because of reduced hunger sensations (thus controls energy balance) or maybe it’s purely psychological belief or even the placebo effect.
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. However, I also had huge caloric requirements to fuel 2-3 hours of practice or games 4-6 times a week.
If you have big energy requirements, eating more frequently is a legitimate solution to getting enough food in a day. That’s because you spread the intake out, and don’t have to feel like you’re stuffing 2000 kcal in three times a day just to maintain your weight.
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. I was suddenly training only a few hours a week, and not all that consistently.
Lesson: If you have big caloric requirements or are trying to gain weight, eating more frequently might make the process easier on you.
If that’s not your objective, then you probably have to work towards finding what works for you.
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.?
Now there is some evidence to suggest that more frequent eating may help some people manage hunger better.
Reducing the feeling of hunger often means less binging or at least reduces poor food choices. This is the only advantage I can see, but it doesn’t apply to everyone.
Just some food for thought in closing this subheading up.
Does Meal Frequency Matter?
Meal frequency 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.
How can they all be right?
They all seem 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.
That means you may want to change meal frequency up OR down.
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.
Just make sure you distribute your eating appropriately with the change. i.e. If you need 5 palms of protein a day and you decide to eat less, that means you have to get more at each meal and vice versa. If you need that and you eat five times a day, then you probably only need one palmful at each meal.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with cycling your eating habits on a daily/weekly/monthly basis, you don’t have to eat the same way every day, though it can help keep you in a routine.
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.
Being on an eating schedule works for the majority of people.
It wasn’t working for me anymore given my chaotic schedule, I ended up with loads of crappy workouts because I was so regimented.
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.
This is just me though. A schedule helps A LOT OF PEOPLE!
That being said, I still tend to eat 4 times a day on a rough schedule.
I have a smaller breakfast, train a few hours, then come home have a bigger late morning breakfast, have a late lunch (1-2PM or so), then a later (7-8ish PM) dinner.
If I’m hungry I might have an afternoon snack around 4PM or so, it’s usually only on days I train though (usually I workout around 2-3 PM these days).
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.
Meal Frequency Considerations
- Pull one meal out, or add one in. Most likely one of your smaller meals and see if you can spread out your meals differently.
- 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. The reverse could be true too, if you’re adding a meal.
- Water, or other non-caloric liquids can be good to briefly convince your brain that you are sticking to your old pattern of eating, make sure you’re staying hydrated (a very light yellow tinge to your urine when you pee).
- Pull a second meal out or add a second meal.
- I recommend you don’t go below 2 meals per day — unless you’ve embraced some form of longer fasting schedule (24 hours probably) — and realize that if you do get to that point no biggie either.
- Feel free to go back to grazing or reduce grazing if after 3-6 months of your new routine you find this strategy doesn’t work for you. Maybe your life has changed too (work schedule, maybe you’re a parent now, whatever the reason).
I believe diet to be an iterative process that we’re all kind of working on continuously, so keep working on it and consider altering how frequently you eat if other strategies don’t seem to be working.