Contrary to what you may have been told, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of eating 6 meals a day. For them, it was feast or famine.
Our very presence as a species is due to the fact that humans were able to endure long periods of time without food.
What happened? With food around every corner, have we lost our ability to tolerate missing a meal?
In this article, I will share the risks and potential dangers of eating 6 meals a day and the amazing benefits of eating 3.
Please read on as I ruffle some feathers in the Grazing Camp…
What Kind of Fuel is your Body Burning?
When we talk about burning fat, what we are actually referring to is the process of using fat as our fuel, our source of energy. It’s a chemical process, not just a metaphor for losing weight.
But fat is only one kind of fuel that can be utilized by our bodies, and carbohydrates – or sugars – are another.
When your body has both available, it will burn the sugars first (because they burn fast) and the fat second (because it burns slow).
As it turns out, burning fat has a plethora of benefits beyond weight management.
Fat is the most precious source of fuel for the body. It is the body’s calm, non-emergency fuel. It burns slowly and steadily, providing energy for many hours straight. By contrast, sugar burns quickly. Sugar and carbohydrate fuels provide quick bursts of energy that often end up in a crash.
Burning fat detoxifies us and neutralizes excess acids that build up from stress. The problem is that many of us have lost the ability to burn fat effectively and are chronically storing fat and gaining weight.
Note: I am not saying we should only burn fat. Humans thrive when we burn a balance of fat and carbs.
6 Meals a Day for Weight Loss and Consistent Energy?
When the body is fed every 2-3 hours, it will burn fuel from those meals, rather than from its fat stores. So instead of burning stored fat between meals the way we were designed, the body enjoys having meals delivered every 2-3 hours. If the meals are small, frequent and healthy, the body won’t store any fat from those meals and, in theory, have energy all day and never gain weight.
In one study, folks that ate small meals or snacks throughout the day (instead of meals) consumed a significantly higher amount of sugar and less micronutrients. (2,3) Sugar is a fast-burning, quick-energy meal that will leave you hungry for another sugary snack, in short order.
Here’s the rub: When being fed every 2-3 hours, the body is not encouraged to burn any of its stored fat for energy.
Why should it bother digging out the fat stores for energy when it is being spoon-fed all day long? When you eat 3 meals a day and have ample time between meals, the body is forced to burn that stored fat.
Once fat is restored as your active fuel supply, you will see better energy, more stable moods, greater mental clarity, better sleep, less cravings and natural and permanent weight management.
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Our Pilot Study
I did a study based on my book, The 3-Season Diet, in 2000. We had the group eat 3 meals a day with no snacks and measured weight loss and a host of psychological factors. Within two weeks, their moods, cravings, sleep, exhaustion after work and fatigue were all significantly improved. They lost an average of 1.2 pounds per week during the 2 month study.
How to Burn Fat All Day Long
Eating breakfast, lunch and supper with no snacks in between will provide a natural fast in between meals that will encourage fat metabolism.
When I was growing up, all the kids on my block had an early supper around 5:30PM. After supper, we played for a while and then came inside and went to bed. There were no bed time snacks – the kitchen closed at 6PM sharp. We would wake up and have breakfast around 7AM and then walk 10 miles to school in the snow.
But that was 13 hours straight with no food. We slept through the night, “fasting,” and broke the fast with “breakfast.” That means that every night, we reset fat metabolism. This allowed us to maintain normal blood sugar, stable moods and overall greater health than what is created by the cultural habits I see today.
What About Healthy Snacks?
If you have a healthy snack, like a carrot, in between breakfast and lunch you will burn the carrot, but you will not burn any stored fat between those two meals. If you don’t snack between lunch and supper, your body will be forced to burn stored fat to get you to supper without a blood sugar crash. From supper to breakfast is a critical time to burn fat, lose weight, detox and reboot a stable nervous system to handle the stress of the next day.
Many folks have a major blood sugar crash between 3 and 6PM. They crave chocolate, a nap, chips or coffee. This blood sugar crash can be balanced with a shift in how we eat.
Take time to have a large relaxing breakfast – make that meal big enough to get you to lunch without the need of a snack. Then, make lunch the main meal of the day and see how much food you need to get to supper without a snack. Make supper count and see if you can eat nothing after supper until bedtime. Then, wake up and break the fast with breakfast.
The Risk and Danger of Frequent Meals
Experts touting 6 meals a day, or what some call the 3-hour diet, say eating every 3 hours will rev up your metabolism, control blood sugar, decrease hunger and create weight loss. Fortunately or unfortunately, experts are having a hard time finding any studies to support these claims.
The Theory Behind 6 Meals a Day
- One of the main themes in support of eating 6 meals a day posits that it will keep the body’s metabolism up, thus increasing thermogenesis (fat burning), resulting in weight loss. There are many studies disputing this notion. In 1997, the British Journal of Medicine did a thorough review of all such related studies, and found no evidence that eating 6 meals a day increases metabolism, thermogenesis, or weight loss. (1)
- One of the other arguments behind the 6-meals-a-day plan is that if you eat 6 small healthy meals a day, the appetite and hunger at each meal will be less. This may help some dieters control hunger and calorie intake. However, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) advises that the more frequently one eats when just slightly hungry, the higher the risk for overeating, suggesting that this as an unreliable strategy.
- Finally, and perhaps the “Holy Grail” of the 6-meals-a-day supporters, is its effect on balancing blood sugar. If you open a medical text book and look up “hypoglycemia,” a condition that involves the blood sugar regularly crashing, you will see a recommendation to eat small meals throughout the day as a dietary medicine. It also suggests that once the blood sugar is brought back into balance, one would return to eating 3 regular meals.
America has been diagnosed with epidemic blood sugar issues and prescribed 6 meals a day as a medicine. The problem is, we are not being told how to get off the medicine and return to the healthier 3-meals-a-day plan. Folks who have blood sugar issues tend to eat poor quality meals and snacks full of simple carbs, sugars, stimulants, processed fats and comfort foods.
True, eating frequent small meals a day will curb the highs and lows of the blood sugar and help them feel more stable, in the short term. I have many patients who report initially feeling great on the 6-meals-a-day plan. They started losing some weight, their anxiety levels, energy and cravings were improving. Then, within 6-9 months the results often slowed down. They soon started feeling hungry all the time, the weight came back on, and the anxiety and mood sensitivity were all of a sudden worse.
Two vs. Six Meals a Day
As you become a better fat burner, you will naturally reduce the amount of food you consume. This will not be due to will power or starvation, but as a result of burning your fat – a fuel that burns slow and steady for longer periods of time.
In one study, they compared eating just breakfast and lunch to eating 6 small meals each day. Both groups ate the same amount of calories. The results were surprising.
Eating only breakfast and lunch reduced body weight, fatty deposits in the liver, fasting glucose, and increased insulin sensitivity. These results suggest that, for blood sugar health concerns, eating larger breakfasts and lunches may be more beneficial than 6 smaller meals throughout the day. (4)
When you eat every 2-3 hours, your body becomes dependent on a constant supply of food. The body will lose its built-in ability to tolerate missing a meal, and the blood sugar will crash, and often crash hard.
In 2002, the New York Academy of Sciences published a report stating that all-day grazing can put you at risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The risk increases when insulin levels spike after eating foods that have high-glycemic values.
If you eat only 3 meals a day, (even high-glycemic ones), your insulin levels have time to even out, says Victor Zammit, head of cell biochemistry at Hannah Research Institute in Ayr, Scotland. Conversely, if you eat high-glycemic foods between meals, your insulin levels stay dangerously high.
Transitioning from Many Small Meals to 3
Most cultures around the world still practice 2-3 meals a day without snacking. For most westerners who have become accustomed to snacking, having 3 meals a day will be a transition. Our western diet is loaded with short-chain carbs, sugars and fast-burning processed foods. Give yourself some time to make this transition. You can even start with 4 meals to make it easier.
Remember, we are making you into a good fat burner once again. This will balance your blood sugar and stave off a host of degenerative and inflammatory concerns.
Here are some tips to make the transition easier:
- Drink lots of water between each meal.
- When you eat: relax and dine. Enjoy the meal before you.
- Start with 4 meals a day and work down to 3.
- Make each meal count and try to make lunch the main meal.
- Avoid late night meals.
- Eat whole foods, rather than processed foods.