Eating Frequency and Fat Loss
Eating Frequency and Fat Loss
A: You’ve probably heard this advice from many different places: personal trainers at your gym, online weight-loss websites, and popular diet books. Even though it has some merit, it may not be entirely correct, especially if your physical activity levels are low or non-existent.
The suggestion to increase your eating frequency, meaning going from eating three square meals a day to six smaller meals and snacks, stems from both research and anecdotal findings. Some of the benefits attributed to eating more often include reducing hunger and caloric intake, boosting your metabolic rate, and controlling hormones that increase your desire for food. For some people this is true, for others, not so much.
In the research world, scientists have shown certain benefits from eating more often compared to less:
• By eating the same amount of calories in several meals spread throughout the day there’s a suppression of free fatty acid release from adipose tissue, which enhances your ability to use glucose (from carbohydrate foods) as fuel
Despite these findings, reviews of all the scientific investigations looking at the effect of increased eating on weight loss have not shown that eating more often reduces body weight. The recent review by Palmer and colleagues in 2009, and the ones by Bellisle and colleagues in 1997 both found this same result; eating more often does not seem to decrease body weight in every person. Explanations for this finding includes the fact that the energy density of our food has increased over the years, even though we’re evolutionarily meant to be “grazers”. Even with lower calories, eating more frequently does not help decrease the numbers on the scale by itself.
For body composition, some observations of people that eat more rather than less show that their body carries less fat. However, research investigations have not shown that just going from eating less to eating more magically lowers body fat. Those people that eat more may simply burn more calories naturally during the day, or expend more calories in movement. Then there are those people that never gain fat no matter how hard they try (not the norm nowadays though).
However, there are clear benefits to eating more often:
• You stave off hunger before it sets in and pushes you to overeat
As far as increasing your metabolism, eating more often can potentially increase the amount of calories you burn in a day, by a mechanism known as the “Thermic Effect of Feeding”. However, this effect is relatively small and can be made easily obsolete with poor food choices and excess caloric intake.
It is true though that when you eat more often rather than less, you’re more likely to meet your exercise goals instead of not having the energy to even begin to do anything. Then, when you exercise more, especially a combination of weight training and cardio, you can increase your muscle mass and lower your body fat, which makes your body look tighter and fit better in clothing. And who doesn’t want that?
However, eating more often doesn’t work for everyone: If you’re not exercising, eating more will definitely cause fat gain – those calories have no where else to go! And, when you eat more you still have to make good food choices and balance your intake of protein, carbohydrates and fat; eating more chocolate and soda will not help your metabolism at all. Considering that most “snack” foods are based off sugar and starchy carbohydrates (crackers, granola bars, etc), it’s really easy to over-consume carbs and miss out on important proteins and fats.
Bottom line: Eating more can help meet your body composition and weight goals if you’re selecting your nutrients wisely and using them to help you exercise consistently.