PHOTO: do you have to eat every 4 hours to lose weight? Are 3 meals-a-day important? The reality is “it depends”…
Meal Timing & How Often To Eat
Today’s nutritional tip of the day is all about timing of your meals. Traditional weight loss, fat-burning belief is that you need to eat a whole bunch of meals to lose weight. What I mean by a whole bunch of meals is like 4, 5, 6 or more meals a day to lose weight. I’ll tell you what this is based on, and like everything there’s always a grain of truth. But the reality is, for most people trying to superimpose a schedule on your meals is probably not the best or the healthiest way for you to eat.
This is what happens. There is a whole community of people, bodybuilders, who know more about nutrition than your average Joe. They’ve understood the hormonal effects of food, probably longer than most medical doctors, if we’re looking historically. The thing that’s a little challenging is they’re eating for physique, not necessarily eating for health. And so above all else, they want to get very low body fat and really high muscle mass. To some extent that’s a healthy pursuit, but many of them take it to an extreme.
And so what people are trying to do, like for a man for example to get their body fat below 5 percent, for a woman maybe they’re trying to get down into the single digits, in order to do that you have to really do some very conscious hormonal biohacking. And one of the reasons that bodybuilders, weight lifters, people who are really trying to lean out will eat multiple meals throughout the deal is to control their insulin response. And insulin is the fat-storage hormone. Fat storage is not a bad thing. Fat storage is a natural thing. Fat storage is a survival thing. A healthy body can store and burn fat very, very quickly and very readily, it’s adaptable. This is part of our genetic heritage. This is part of our ability as humans. We are not designed to simply be the exact same weight all the time. Like all animals, we gain and burn weight readily, and a healthy body can do that very quickly.
So the challenge is, a bodybuilder doesn’t want to do that. They want to be lean all the time. and I’m really stereotyping here, there’s plenty of bodybuilders out there who eat healthfully and they understand all of this and they eat in a way that’s optimal for their health. But if we’re being stereotypical, they’ll often eat 5, 6, 8 times a day and they’ll eat less, and what that does is that reduces the insulin response and it reduces their body’s ability to store that food as fat.
And so when we eat foods, specifically carbohydrates or proteins but mostly carbohydrates, your body will release insulin to handle that sugar, to manage that sugar. One of the things it does with that sugar is it stores it as fat. It also helps to synthesize protein into muscle, and if you eat a lot of protein like bodybuilders do, even that protein will have an insulin response. It will spike your insulin levels. So let’s say you have a bodybuilder who’s eating like 15 chicken breasts a day, if they space those out over the course of a day and they do severe carb restriction, maybe they’re eating 50 grams of carbs a day, something like that, what they can do by spacing that out is they severely limit their body’s ability, hormonally speaking, to store fat.
Now for the common person, they think wow, fantastic, I’m going to eat 8 meals a day, my body’s not going to have enough insulin to store fat, I’m going to be lean and ripped. The reality is it doesn’t really work like that, and you really need precision and timing and the discipline and especially that extreme carbohydrate restriction to make this work. And even when it works it’s usually very, very short lived. Right after any kind of bodybuilding contest most bodybuilders gain a ton of weight, sometimes a staggering amount of weight like 20 pounds within 48 hours. A ton of that is water weight of course, but a lot of that is a hormonal backlash that happens when you do that to your body and put it in that starvation mode.
So do you need to do it? Not necessarily. There are people who live in monasteries and temples who eat one time a day. There are people who eat two times a day. There are people who eat 8 and 10 times a day, and that can be very healthy. It doesn’t really matter. It depends on you. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re very active and athletic and you need to be on your feet all day, smaller meals throughout the day might give you more sustained energy.
If you have a sedentary job or if you need to sit still and concentrate, for example whenever I’ve gone to any kind of meditation retreat, any kind of spiritual retreat, they feed you very little and they stop feeding you very early in the day, because having your digestive system empty is great for concentration. And having your body being satiated with less is very important as well.
So what’s right for you?
One thing that we know for sure is that consistency is helpful. So in order for your body to adapt to whatever kind of schedule you want to impose upon it, the best thing is consistency. With my different experiments over the years, I’ve done pretty much everything. For about a year and-a-half I used to quit eating at 3:00 every afternoon, and I just felt really, really amazing. It kept me very, very lean, my attention and my energy was very high. My hunger the next morning was very healthy, and I just love feeling just hungry for a meal. Not starved, but just a healthy appetite. There’s been other times when I’ve done that sort of hormonal experimentation and I have eaten 8 times a day. I found it to be really tedious and draining. The digestive energy to always have my digestive system working, I didn’t enjoy it. But it certainly did give me energy, my body temperature was higher, I sweat a lot, I was very warm. I’ve also done things where I ate as little as one meal per day when I was in meditation center. I would eat breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and then nothing else all day long, and that worked, too. Within a few days I was able to acclimate to that.
Now what’s interesting is you do acclimate, meaning your body really changes. Your cycle changes. I don’t mean you look like a completely different person, but the energy in your brain, the concentration, your tendency to fidget or not fidget, to daydream or not daydream, it’s very noticeable. These are not small things. When you go from eating 3 or 4 meals a day to eating 1 it’s dramatic in terms of what happens. So should you eat 5, 6, 8 times a day to lose weight? Absolutely not.
What is the healthiest thing for most people? For most people the healthiest thing is to keep your energy and your blood sugar balanced. For most people that means eating two or three meals a day, maybe a couple of snacks, but it really varies widely. If you’re getting absolutely starving between meals, probably you’re setting yourself up for a bit of a blood sugar rollercoaster, which can lead to all kinds of different metabolic challenges. If you’re eating tons and tons of food all the time, you’re of course setting yourself up for the same kind of thing on the other end, where it can be really easy to gain too much weight, to eat too much or just to disrupt your sleep or any number of other things.
So should you time your food, should you try to superimpose 5 or 8 meals on yourself if that doesn’t come naturally? My feeling is no. You should eat based on your natural rhythms. If you’re eating healthy food and you’re not hungry, don’t eat. If you find that you’re eating very sporadically and you’re unable to find a rhythm, that’s a good sign that perhaps you’re not listening to your own body’s signals. But again, most people eat two or three meals a day, maybe a couple of snacks, and they’re good to go. There’s no reason you need to eat 5 or 8 meals a day.