I’ll never forget the first time I came across this bit of information. I thought I had found the holy grail of weight loss (yes, I was that excited).
What am I referring to? None other than this key piece of advice: “eating several times a day – rather than a few large meals – keeps your metabolism revved up and speeds up weight loss”.
Of course, it’s plain to see why I was so excited. Who wouldn’t want to be munching all the time… especially if it helped the pounds drop faster? And like most people, I took this advice to heart and started dividing my daily calories into 5-6 small meals (about one every 3 hours).
And what seemed like a blessing at first, quickly become a curse. Why? Because I became obsessed with meal timing (not to mention calorie counts and portions). But did I lose weight? Sure – a bit… however, it all came back when I stopped this erratic behavior and returned to a more “sensible” way of eating (that’s a whole other story).
Knowing what I know now, I can’t help but think how silly this myth really is. And yes, it is a myth. It doesn’t matter if you eat once a day or ten. As far as weight loss is concerned, it’s the net caloric balance that matters. In other words, if you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, you’ll shed the pounds.
Nevertheless, let’s go over why people continue to spout this nonsense. It comes down to two (silly) claims:
- Eating more often prevents your metabolism from slowing down.
- Food digestion burns calories so eating more food burns more calories.
Now, let’s examine these in a little more detail…
The logic behind the first one is that your body will slow down its metabolism if you’re not constantly feeding it. It’s a survival response: if it thinks it’s not going to eat for a prolonged period of time, it will do whatever it takes to preserve energy and keep you alive. And this is all true.
So, why the rebuttal?
Simple, it takes a long time without food for this to happen. In fact, recent studies on fasting have shown that you can go for days without food without slowing down your metabolism at all. In fact, it will actually speed up your weight loss.
But everyone who gives this advice tells you it will happen after a few hours. And again, studies have shown that this is simply not true.
Now, let’s sidestep science for a second and inject a little logic into the matter. Let’s imagine that this were true – that your metabolism actually slowed down after a few hours of not eating. That would be OK in our present state – with supermarkets everywhere and food readily available.
But what about our ancestors who had to go out and hunt? They didn’t always catch something and had to go without eating for much longer than a few hours. If their (and hence, our) metabolism were that sensitive, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. The lions would have eaten us all a long, long time ago.
Alright, we’ve spent enough time on this claim. Let’s move on to the second…
Digestion does burn calories (again, a true statement). This is called the thermic effect of food. And eating more will naturally burn more calories. But here’s the thing… you’re also eating more! And remember what ultimately counts with weight loss: net caloric balance.
If you’re eating more, you’re taking in more calories. How could you possibly lose weight? You couldn’t, unless eating those foods caused you to burn more calories than they contained.
Here’s some simple math to demonstrate this…
Digestion burns about 10% of the calories you eat. So, let’s say you ate 2,400 calories per day over 3 meals or 800 calories per meal. You would burn 80 calories to digest your meal, and 80 x 3 = 240.
Now let’s say you wanted to lose weight faster so you decided to eat 6 meals of 400 calories instead of 3 of 800. You would burn 40 calories digesting each meal, and 40 x 6 -= 240.
As you can see, you would burn the same amount whether you ate 3 meals or 6. Again, it’s the total calories that matter, not how you break them up.
So, in conclusion, here’s my bit of advice: eat when you’re hungry and don’t when you’re not. In other words, listen to your body, because like everything else it knows better than some “expert” when and how much you should be feeding it… provided you’re feeding it the right foods, that is.