By: Brad Pilon, MSc
The idea of eating 6 small meals per day as a way to lose weight has never sat well with me. More than anything I have always thought of it as a major inconvenience.
I think it is a real hassle to eat that often. It's hard enough to eat three meals a day if you are preparing them well with fresh ingredients and as little processed foods as possible, I couldn’t even imagine doing that much work 6 times every day! Your only option becomes using 1 day a week as a 'prep' day, doing all your cooking, then storing your weeks worth of food in containers, but again, it is still A LOT of work.
I also don’t like the hormonal effect of this style of eating. Eating several small meals per day does reduce insulin spikes (slightly), however it does this by substituting in an almost constant flow of insulin (with lower peaks). So instead of a couple high peaks, you end up having your total insulin increased over the course of the day. And total daily insulin is more important from a health and weight loss standpoint (Even though the spikes are lower, the 'area under the curve' tends to be equal or even higher, depending on the total calorie intake).
If you’ve read Eat Stop Eat, or listened to the Eat Stop Eat Advanced Audio Files then you know I'm not a fan of the idea of being in the 'fed state' all throughout the day, every single day of your life. To me, that's a recipe for obesity!
The other thing I don't like about forcing 6 meals a day is that when it comes to fat burning, one of the most important parts of your metabolism is the opposing effects of Growth Hormone and Insulin.
Growth hormone is secreted when we are fasting and directs nutrients toward our muscles. Insulin is secreted when we are fed and sends them the other way toward fat. Growth Hormone promotes the release of fat from body fat stores, Insulin prevents the release of fat from body fat stores.
A simple rule of metabolism is that Insulin plus excess calories equals fat storage, Growth Hormone plus a caloric deficit equals body fat burning as fuel
There is no way to avoid it. It's how our bodies work.
Keeping your insulin elevated over the course of a day seems like a bad idea to me, especially if you are trying to lose weight. In this style of eating you have to be almost obsessive with monitoring the amount of calories you eat. Even the smallest mistake at each of your 6 meals and this over-eating will almost certainly cause you to store fat.
Think of it this way, even over-eating by as little as 85 Calories at each of your 6 meals would be an extra 500 Calories per day.
Now, I have no problem with mutliple meals per day if that's your natural ebb and flow of how you eat. I also have no issues with you eating six meals a day or even more if it's happening every once in a while. But, if you are forcing yourself to eat this way, please stop.
That being said, I do need to point out that is some of the research that support the 'multiple meals a day' approach, a meal was ANYTHING over 45 calories... this included beverages. So that morning coffee you had? That counted as 'meal 1'.
This 'high risk, low reward scenario' is reason enough for me not to bother with the 6 meals a day mantra, however it’s NOT the biggest reason why I don’t like this approach. The number one reason I don’t like it is because it is not fair to women.
That’s right, six meals a day is sexist.
The diet style of eating six 'small' meals a day started with bodybuilders. And it is traditionally men who read about and follow bodybuilding.
So when magazine writers are trying to think up new nutrition stories for their readers, they are doing it for guys who are into bodybuilding and who typical have much larger muscle mass and bodies than average.
This is where 6 meals per day comes in. When it was originally pitched as a way to lose weight, it was in
bodybuilding magazines, directed specifically to bodybuilders. This idea made sense to them and didn’t seem too hard.
After all, when a 260-pound heavily muscled bodybuilder is trying to lose weight he might start by lowering his calorie intake down to around 2400 (which is much more than an average person would ever need in a day).
Divide this by 6 and he's 'small meals' consists of eating around 400 Calories at every meal. Not bad, not bad at all.
Based on this math, this bodybuilder could lose weight by eating a 6-inch “steak and cheese” sub from Subway for every meal!
Breakfast could be a 4 egg omelette, with cheese!
Now that sounds like a diet I could handle no problem.
However, a 5 foot 4 woman who weighs a 130 pounds isn’t so lucky. For this woman to lose weight her caloric intake is going to have to be much lower than the bodybuilder in the example above. If her dieting caloric intake was 1300, and she was eating 6 meals per day then she would get to eat a whopping 220 Calories at each meal!
This is the caloric equivalent of eating one medium sized banana and a half-cup of yogurt at every meal.
Breakfast is now 2 eggs, hold the cheese.
No Thank You!
Obviously, I can't tell you that I understand what it feels like to be 130 pound woman, but I can tell you that to me eating a half cup of yogurt and a medium banana at EVERY meal would be torture.
Now think of this - if that medium banana is just a little larger, then she will have already gone over her meal allowance of 220 Calories! So in order for her to stick to the diet she would need to eat even LESS than 220 calories at her next meal.
Think of how wrong this sounds; Start your day off with a “large” rather than “medium” banana and a yogurt and you are already on track to overeat for the day! This style of eating requires you to be extremely strict... A level of discipline that some people crave, but others (like myself) have aboslutely zero interest in being this detailed with their meals (especially if there is a better option).
If you are eating 6 full meals every single day then you NEED to count Calories. You NEED to weigh your food. You NEED to be ULTRA strict at restaurants.
Since there really is no scientifically proven weight loss advantage to eating multiple small meals per day (this includes any supposed metabolic advantage), why do this to yourself?
I can’t imagine eating multiple small meals the size of a banana and some yogurt for weeks on end…like I said earlier -it would be torture! Especially since their is no weight loss or health benefits to eating this way.
So this is why I don’t agree with the weight loss strategy of eating 6 small meals per day - It was designed for a very specific, heavily muscled, unique group of people (bodybuilders) but for some reason it gets pushed on the rest of us.
Not only was 6 meals per day designed for a very unique group of people, but in order to be done properly, you need to give in to Obsessive Compulsive Eating.
It forces you to start worrying about how much you ate at every meal, and what the exact nutrient breakdown was for every single thing you ate, and the minute you are finished one meal, you immediately have to begin planning the next one. The count down starts the minute your put your fork down! This is a very toxic way of living with food. This is obsessive compulsive eating.
There is no benefit, and for most people who don’t weigh 250+ pounds, it just makes life very difficult. Eating only 200 to 300 calories per meal is very hard to do, and because nobody can spend 6 hours a day preparing these meals, you end up having no choice but to rely on supplements and protein bars to get all your meals in without going over your calorie amount…and most likely this is the whole purpose of this style of eating.
It was bodybuilding magazines who first made this style of eating popular, and it is these same magazines that serve as the main advertising source for sports supplements.
So if following 6 meals a day is only really possible when you use protein shakes and protein bars it makes perfect sense that this style of eating is promoted so heavily by the bodybuilding/supplement/magazine industry in order to sell more supplements, protein powders and protein/nutrition bars.
Once again, we see how Obsessive Compulsive Eating benefits the food industry and how the food industry can effect the way we eat.
Here’s my advice. Eat six meals a day. Also eat 3. Sometimes zero, but don't get tied down by obsessively sticking to one 'perfect' eating pattern. And avoid the supplement trap. There is nothing wrong with supplements, but don’t let the way you eat be dictated to you by the profit needs of the supplement industry. If you want to lose weight then you need to reduce your calories by the method that suits you the best (whether it’s by following Eat Stop Eat or any other diet method).
I’m sure there is a small group of people who might even do very well eating 6 meals per day, and actually have the time to do it…but please, if it doesn’t work for you then let the 6 meals a day idea fade away just like every other industry driven fad.
Find the simplest easiest method of reducing the amount of food you eat, while still allowing you to actually enjoy the foods you eat, then use that method.
intermittent fasting, in it's simplest form is one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of food you eat. It helps you reduce overall calories, without needing to obsess every day about the EXACT amount of Calories you are eating.
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