Recently, I was talking to one of my friends who is trying to lose weight. She was telling me that she regularly only eats 2 big meals every day and usually skips breakfast. My immediate thought was: She needs to eat more frequently! Most people think that if they want to lose weight, they should just eat less and the weight will come off. That’s not exactly true.
The weight will likely come off, but it won’t stay off because the only reason you’ve lost weight is because you’ve severely limited your calories. As soon as you start eating normally again, you’ll gain the weight back, and on top of that, your body will begin to store that extra meal as fat fearing that you might decide to cut out that meal again in the future.
The reason for this is, when you start consuming drastically less calories, or have long gaps between meals (e.g. one meal at 12pm and one at 8pm with nothing else in between), your body goes into starvation mode. What does that mean? Basically, when there are long gaps between meals, your body moves from a fat burning mode to a fat preservation mode. That means that your body will start burning muscle instead of fat. This eventually causes a decrease in your lean muscle mass, which actually slows down your metabolism, and makes your body fat percentage goes up.
Also, when you eat only a couple meals a day, your blood sugar levels fluctuate wildly. Those blood sugar fluctuations are often the culprit for the crazy cravings we’ll get once we’re so hungry that any food – 5 chocolate chip cookies, 2 bags of chips, 1 whole pizza – will do. So even when you do eat your meals, you’ll end up overeating and canceling out any calorie restriction gains you accomplished during the day.
So does that mean that eating 6 meals a day is healthier than eating 3 meals a day? Not necessarily. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. Because the other part of weight loss that’s important is a simple math equation (my husband would love that I’m incorporating math into this post by the way!). So here’s the equation: Calories in – Calories out < 0.
Or, in other words, the calories you’re consuming must be less than the calories you expend throughout the day. That doesn’t mean that you have to burn 1600 calories at the gym alone – this includes calories you burn just being you – I mean technically, we’re burning calories even while we’re sleeping! Here’s a link to an awesome tool that will help you determine your your BMR – that’s your basal metabolic rate – the amount of calories you burn doing no activity whatsoever.
But I digress So back to the question – is eating 6 small meals a day healthier than eating 3 regular meals? Sort of. It’s only healthier if you aren’t consuming more calories as a result of eating more meals. So the key is – 6 small meals. That means that each mini-meal should be about 200-300 calories max – which puts you at a 1200-1800 calorie range per day – which is perfect.
The benefits of 6 small meals a day are:
- Keeps your metabolism going at a steady rate which allows you to burn calories efficiently
- Helps you maintain hunger cravings and random food binges – keeps your blood sugar steady which helps prevent hunger attacks
- Keeps your energy up!
The pitfalls of 6 small meals a day are:
- Overeating! Small means small! 1 slice of whole wheat toast with a slice of low fat cheese; or a handful of almonds with an apple count as mini-meals so be careful!
- Takes effort to plan out. If you’re doing well with 3 meals a day and you don’t tend to overeat in between meals, then this might not be the best plan for you.
- Many experts feel that trying to spread out the day’s calories rather than sitting down to regular meals may throw off the body’s internal clock making it forget how to recognize hunger and satiety cues to the point when you no longer understand what it’s like to be hungry but also never quite feel full. This is not a good thing.
So what’s the bottom line? If you’re the type of person who has the discipline and the patience to eat six small portions every day, can count calories, and you’re also the type of person to binge when you feel hungry – this could be the right fit for you. If you’re the type of person who enjoys sitting down to a regular sized meal and doesn’t have a tendency to overeat, then sticking to the traditional breakfast, lunch, dinner and one small snack is probably the best approach. Either way – the total calories you’re consuming must equal (or if you’re trying to lose weight, be less than) the calories you’re expending. And you should always be eating at least 3 balanced meals a day – don’t ever skip breakfast!