It’s the start of a New Year, and like every January, people are scrambling to gyms and diet plans to shed unwanted weight gain from the previous year. I’m all for people jumping in with both feet and adding more movement and better nutrition into their regime, but the problem is most people fall off the wagon very quickly. Did you know that 90% of people report failure in their New Year’s resolutions? That’s right, out of 10 people, only one person will successfully do what they promised themselves.
Why is this success rate so abysmal? Bad advice is on the top of my list. People are always looking for sophisticated and exotic ways to solve their problems, when in fact, the simplest approach typically yields very strong results (with minimal effort).
Think back to 100 years ago, was everyone obese or overweight? No, not even close. In fact, a famous circus performer dubbed the “Fattest Man In The World” in 1903 wouldn’t even stand out of a crowd today. Where did we go wrong? Let’s try and simplify things.
The Grazing Theory
One of the biggest nutrition myths is that eating multiple meals—five or six—throughout the day will help you boost metabolism and therefore lose weight. It’s the “grazing” theory. Let’s see how it actually stacks-up in the research.
Proponents of multiple meals will cite the increased thermic effect of food (TEF) as a key indicator that your body is working harder—and expending more calories—to process the meals you’re eating. Basically, the more meals you eat, the greater your TEF. The greater your TEF, the more calories your burn. Also, advocates of multiple meals suggest your metabolism will bottom out completely if you don’t eat every 3-4 hours.
This should be great for weight loss! But recently, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and his research team crunched the numbers and examined all the best studies around meal frequency and weight loss to uncover whether “multiple meals” is really a good nutritional intervention for weight loss.
- What they did: The researchers pooled together 15 randomized, control trials comparing men and women who ate three or fewer meals per day, with those people who ate greater than three meals. The studies were all greater than two weeks in duration, had pre- and post-study body composition testing, and were done in adults over the age of eighteen.
- What they found: The researchers discovered there was absolutely no effect of meal frequency on bodyweight. Likewise, there was no improvement of body-fat percentage with increased meal frequency. In summary, they stated “our analysis does not support a tangible benefit to eating small frequent meals on body composition.” Enough said.1
Let’s take this a step further. It gets worse.
A recent study published in the medical journal Hepatology described a trial where they wanted to participants to gain weight. (Yep, not the best study to be a part of.) They compared eating three square meals per day with eating multiple meals in a diet with a caloric surplus. The results were eye-opening. The group that ate with higher frequency gained significantly more body fat, in particular belly fat, but also gained significant fat in their livers (at exactly the same caloric intake).2 When your body is storing fat in the liver, your health is seriously compromised and you’re at much greater risk of chronic disease.
Eat More, Less Often
So, you’ve been convinced to eat protein bars, snacks, and anything in a package, multiple times a day to help you lose weight. Let’s simplify the equation. Do the opposite.
To burn body fat as a fuel source, your blood sugar levels must be low enough to trigger lipolysis—the breakdown of body fat. If you’re out of shape or overweight, your body likely does not deal with carbohydrates very efficiently. This means if you drink juice, eat cereal, bread, etc., your blood sugars will increase much more than a fit person, and take much longer to return to baseline. And by the time they do, you’re eating another snack.
In short, you’re metabolically inflexible. You’re “stuck” in carb-burning mode, and your body is incredibly poor at breaking down body fat for fuel. Your goal should be to become metabolically flexible. Improve your body’s ability to break down fat for a fuel source. How can you do this?
If we go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they would have gone many hours, many days, even weeks between meals. How did they survive without a protein bar snack or eating every 3-4 hours? The answer is simple; your body is designed to shift gears from burning carbs to burning fat (i.e. metabolic flexibility). But modern eating patterns are completely hijacking this ability. The result is being stuck with unwanted and persistent weight gain.
Once again, the solution is to stop snacking; get back to eating three square meals, like your great grandparents. Here are some quick tips on how to survive the first week, without chewing your arm off or screaming at your colleagues or loved ones.
Drink coffee. The caffeine in coffee inhibits the PYY appetite hormone in the gut, naturally supressing appetite. It’s remarkably effective. The problem for most people, is they drink their morning coffee before or during breakfast. The best strategy is to hold off until after breakfast (perhaps when you get into the office) to grab your cup of java. Remember, no added sugar in your coffee. If you’re not a coffee-drinker, go for black or green tea.
Afternoon Sugar Cravings
The AM snack is quite easy to cut out; most people find it much easier than they initially thought it would be. The afternoon snack can be a little more difficult. For most people, you’re coming down from your morning caffeinated high, a blood sugar dip from lunch, and a natural, circadian low. This is the three-headed monster that makes you crave sweets!
I’m a big fan of drinking a green tea in the afternoon (2:00-3:00pm), as it contains a touch of caffeine to suppress appetite. It also provides an amino acid (i.e. L-theanine) which relaxes the nervous system, so it’s not as stimulating as coffee. You can also go with an herbal tea, or drink more water to get you through. Distractions like walking around and scheduling meetings are also very helpful. And of course, don’t keep snacks in your desk.
You’ll likely have cravings for a few days, but then they will subside. This will let you know you’re moving in the right direction. If your cravings last for more than 4-5 days, you’ve been really overdoing it, and you’ll just have to “grin and bear it” a little longer.
The Late-Night Couch Snack
This one is the toughest for a lot of clients. After a long day, you finally kick your feet up on the couch and, just like Pavlov’s dog, it triggers your brain to instantly crave a reward: something sweet. Much like the PM snack, the cravings will subside after a few days. Once again, a simple herbal tea can work wonders (just don’t overconsume, as you may be getting up in the night to pee!).
Get Back to Your Roots to Get Slim
There you have it. If weight loss is your goal, simplify rather than complicate. Get back to your ancestral roots and ditch the snacking. You’ll be amazed at the progress you can make eating three square meals per day!
Don’t believe the excuses the media feeds you:
1. Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, Alan Albert Aragon, and James W. Krieger. “Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis.” Nutrition Reviews 73, no. 2 (2015): 69-82.
2. Koopman, Karin E., Matthan WA Caan, Aart J. Nederveen, Anouk Pels, Mariette T. Ackermans, Eric Fliers, Susanne E. Fleur, and Mireille J. Serlie. “Hypercaloric diets with increased meal frequency, but not meal size, increase intrahepatic triglycerides: a randomized controlled trial.” Hepatology 60, no. 2 (2014): 545-553.