Some people ask whether it’s really necessary to consume five meals per day, preferring the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unfortunately, the answer is an unequivocal, “Yes.” Although it requires a little extra effort, both anecdotal evidence and scientific research have shown that people who consume five meals a day are able to stay leaner than those who consume only three. Why is this?
First, when you go without eating for more than a few hours, your body senses deprivation and shifts into a “starvation mode.” Part of the starvation response is to decrease resting energy expenditure. In effect, the body slows down its metabolic rate to conserve energy. This is accomplished primarily by decreasing the activity of thyroid hormone, particularly the active form called T3. As a rule, the longer the period in between meals, the greater the decrease in T3 production.
In addition, reduced meal frequency has a negative effect on insulin levels. This causes insulin spikes, which switches on various mechanisms that increase fat storage. The spikes then lead to a crash, where there is a tendency toward hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hunger pangs ensue and you invariably end up eating more than you otherwise would, often in the form of refined sweets. This sets up the vicious cycle of overeating and uncontrolled insulin secretions—a surefire path to unwanted weight gain.
Compounding matters, the absence of food causes the stomach to secrete a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is referred to as the “hunger hormone.” It exerts its effects by slowing down fat utilization and increasing appetite. Without consistent food consumption, ghrelin levels remain elevated for extended periods of time, increasing the urge to eat.
Frequent meals counteract these negative effects. Blood sugar is better regulated and, because there is an almost constant flow of food into the stomach, the hunger-inducing effects of ghrelin are suppressed, reducing the urge to binge out.
The importance of frequent feedings is even more pronounced when you’re trying to lose weight. The reason: preservation of muscle. During periods of caloric restriction, the body catabolizes muscle protein and converts it into glucose for use as an energy source. By increasing meal frequency, you attenuate the rate of muscle tissue breakdown. This allows you to maintain more lean body mass and thereby keep metabolism elevated.
To make the task of eating frequently a little less arduous, it is beneficial to prepare several meals in advance, store them in plastic containers, and reheat them in a microwave on an as-needed basis. This allows you to consolidate preparation, thereby heightening efficiency.
Another alternative is to supplement your basic meals with meal replacement powders (MRPs). These “engineered foods” provide the ultimate in convenience. They are nutritionally balanced, easily transportable, and can be prepared in a matter of minutes. Over the long-term, these factors make them an excellent aid in the pursuit of lasting weight management. In fact, fat-loss programs that use MRPs are significantly more successful than those that don’t. In most cases, you can substitute these meal replacements for either Meal 2 or Meal 4 in the daily menus. Make sure, however, to adjust caloric intake accordingly, if necessary.
You can also opt for one of the many nutritional bars on the market. These bars come in a wide array of different flavors and are often quite tasty (although taste is very subjective!). Like MRPs, they can be substituted for either Meal 2 or Meal 4 in the daily menus. Just make sure to adjust caloric intake accordingly. Be careful, however, about which bars you choose. Some products are nothing more than glorified candy bars, containing high quantities of sugar, HFCS, and/or saturated fat (and even trans fat). Make sure to check the ingredients before you buy and avoid bars that contain additives with buzzwords such as “corn syrup” and “partially hydrogenated,” especially if they are listed as one of the first few items.
One final note: Don’t be concerned if, at the onset, you find it difficult to eat so frequently. It has been said that any activity done consistently for one month becomes habit and diet is no exception. For some it might take a little longer and for others not quite so long, but if you adhere to the same nutritional protocol on a consistent basis, it will become ingrained into your subconscious. Eventually, eating every few hours will be second nature.