Thank you for returning for the 4th installment of our article series examining some of the finer details of many long-held practices in health and fitness. In this article we will once again link a scientifically biased perspective on a common practical activity that many who are in the pursuit of health engage in: eating small meals every 2-to-3 hours to increase metabolism and lose fat.
Let’s start with the long-held belief in the idea behind this practice. If one eats small meals more frequently they will “stoke” their metabolism by burning more calories in the process of digestion accompanied with likelihood of smaller meals being less adept at being stored by the body as fat. The added bonus of consuming protein so frequently will help to maximize muscle growth and prevent any muscle loss! It sounds like a no brainer for those who want to achieve idea body composition and energy levels……or so it seems. Let me explain….
While in theory it does sound amazing, especially in terms of promoting an efficient metabolism that is capable of really burning body fat easily. In reality it is just that a theory, because there are too many factors to account for that operate at different rates in the body. Rather than just write a long-winded paragraph, for this article I will separate the variables into categories to highlight the individual pieces then bring it together at the end, so hold on, here we go.
Believe it or not, how this way of eating COULD potentially affect the digestive system is one of my biggest criticisms of frequent eating and likely one of the most under-appreciated aspects of consideration. I have a saying that states: “the greatest diet in the world is useless if you can’t digest it.” This applies here as I often see, hear, and unfortunately feel the after effects of the digestive issues that plague many in the fitness world, especially body builders and fitness competitors. Sorry to say. Digestion isn’t often thought about as it’s the opposite of sexy and exciting, but as clinical practitioners, it’s usually the most common challenge that we face. If you eat too frequently, it places a burden on the digestive system because it’s always expending energy to digest, which means it has to make more HCL, enzymes, and bile. Additionally, depending on WHAT someone is eating it can negatively impact their gut health if it’s constantly being bombarded by poor quality foods. Lastly many are already eating their next meal before the previous has left their stomach! The analogy I use is; how would you feel if you were working over-time without being given a good night of sleep? The digestive system is no different as it is required to processes a lot of endogenous waste material and promote new cell proliferation (healing and regeneration) when it is NOT being required to digest food “round-the-clock.” This doesn’t happen with food constantly being poured in.
When I refer to the endocrine system in the context of this article, I am referring to hormones of satiety, specifically; insulin, glucagon, leptin, and adiponectin. These hormones are meant to regulate aspects of metabolism including: fat gain/loss, hunger, blood sugar, and energy metabolism. These hormones are designed to help the body “auto-regulate” its metabolic function and control food intake. When food comes in, the body responds and increases ATP synthesis and energy storage, when food isn’t consumed the body responds by breaking down stored energy to keep the machine running. The body is designed to have high and low periods of energy intake which allows for the maintenance of anabolic and catabolic balance in terms of overall metabolic rate (remember the last article) and promotes long term metabolic flexibility. If we are constantly consuming calories, we are bringing in external energy that the body will prioritize to burn first (so we never access much stored energy) and thus make it harder for our body’s to regulate the endocrine system and energy balance. If our goal is fat loss, the frequent eating pattern serves the purpose to help keep metabolic activity high in a CALORIC DEFICIET but this is a short term solution which doesn’t work well in a high calorie state. If our goal is max muscle then you should probably ignore the finer details of this article as the bias is always long term balance for health and wellness.
I fear that this may incite some kind of war among the fitness-sphere but I am going to address the topic anyway because it NEEDS to be; calories in vs calories out. Let’s explore 2 scenarios, someone eats 3000 calories in 3 meals or 6 meals, what’s the difference? Well to be quite frank its really just eating 3 more times and more chewing. The “theory” behind that way of operating is that it will raise your metabolism and thus promote more fat loss as a result. The shred of truth in this is that it will actually increase your caloric expenditure due to what is called the “thermic effect of food.” The reality is that if someone eats 3000 calories in 3 or 6 meals the net result is almost the same. The health of someone’s digestion and gut microbiome likely plays a bigger role than frequency of eating if someone is looking for the most impactful modification to their diet/lifestyle. What I mean by this is that having poor gut health/digestion/microbial diversity can actually cause the body to “net” more calories from a given meal. The final perspective I will share here is the idea of how humans developed over ten’s-of-thousands of years. Never before the invention of the fridge and the option of a grocery store did we as a race have access to eating food around the clock. I also think it’s no wonder we have such an epidemic of degenerative diseases that have a connection to excessive caloric consumption. We didn’t evolve and optimize our biology to constantly eat no matter what anyone says, there is a reason we can store tons of fat as a species, for when food was scarce. So total food QUANTITY still matters a lot and is far more important than how often one eats.
I think the biggest benefit of less frequent eating comes from what the body is able to do at a cellular level in order to regulate many functions that serve to benefit overall health and wellbeing. When we eat, we direct energy resources to facilitate the digestion process and therefore the body is unable to perform some routine “cleaning” known as autophagy. This process which basically translates to “self-eating” in short is a process where the body breaks down and recycles old cellular componentry in order to prevent dysfunctional cellular activity. When certain components inside the cell become worn out, the speed at which the cell performs its vital functions is slowed and as a result, the opportunity for that cell to become sick/dysfunctional increases. What this can result in is excessive free radical production and oxidative stress. What this has been shown to increase is the likelihood for an environment that can harbour premature cell death. If you think about the fact that every organ in the body is nothing but a collection of cells, then you can understand how our health can become compromised when do not allow our body to have periods of anabolic (building) and catabolic (breakdown) activity. If we constantly are ingesting food then we have imbalanced this ratio and over the course of time, this could impact our health and performance on a long term basis.
Putting it Together
There are many more ways we could poke holes in this from a perspective of it being good or bad, but the fact remains that we need to come up with an “optimal” scenario that fits our world view that takes into account “the best of both worlds” for health and performance. So here are the guidelines we suggest.
- Don’t eat every 2-3 hours
There is a good chance that you haven’t even allowed the food you have currently eaten to leave your stomach or upper GI tract yet which means you will likely stress your digestive system by eating again. The best diet in the world is useless if you can’t digest it! Instead try extending your eating window to 4-5 hours which gives your body a chance to move digested food matter through the pipes. Don’t worry based upon how your body stored amino acids in a “pool” in your liver, you won’t go catabolic in a matter of 30min…
- Don’t go high protein or high carb every meal
Bodybuilding aside, most who want to keep themselves in good shape do NOT need protein every few hours to prevent muscle loss, this is actually somewhat of a myth. The fact of the matter is that protein and carbs can signal cellular processes that can keep the “growth” processes in the cell turned on and can “shut off” the cellular breakdown/recycling process. One thing we have suggested for clients who want to optimize body composition is to partition macronutrients with fats being highest in the morning, carbs mid-day, and a focus on protein in the evening. Remember this is an option, not the way, figure out what works best for your lifestyle. This is an easy beginner strategy to take advantage of the natural circadian rhythm of the day.
- Plan the occasional fast or calorie restricted day
The body is an efficient machine that simply takes cues for external and internal inputs to maintain its primer directive; renewal and survival When you restrict calories continuously it can negatively impact you if you are an active person. However, if you plan the occasional day of eating less or not at all, it gives the body a break from the work it takes to digest and instead allows the cleaning crew to come in and get some work done on the inside. Reduce caloric intake by 50% or have a day of water/tea fasting and downregulate your activity level. You can simply do this once or twice a month and it can ACTUALLY be good for you. Special considerations should be taken for those who have poor blood sugar control, are chronically sick, and children who need to maintain anabolic growth and development.
As you can see we are not trying to reinvent the wheel here, just bring some awareness to other ways of operating and knowing that by choosing this, it won’t totally destroy your hard-earned progress. I will always cite the fact that for extreme populations this advice may not be the best as it could actually compromise an extreme training regime. That being said for the vast majority of those interested in health and wellness, I encourage you to do a little more digging and see what research you find and what your experience of some of these practices yield!
By: Roland Pankewich & Vincent Comtois