Are your small, frequent meals making you fat?
For many years, conventional nutritional guidelines have recommended we eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. We were told that this would keep our metabolism high and aid in proper blood sugar regulation. Although this is often used as a treatment for diabetics, this system may actually be creating more fat gain than aiding fat loss. Here is why.
Our bodies have two sources of fuel. These are carbs and fat. Fat is a steadier source of energy. It also aids in detoxification because toxins are stored in fat in order to protect our nervous system and vital organs. Carbs, on the other hand, are a much more unstable source of fuel, resulting in energy highs and lows.
Let’s start with some basic biochemistry. Any time we eat a meal, we get a rise in blood sugar. Our pancreas secretes insulin in order to store glycogen in our cells to be used as energy. If the cell is full, it will get stored as fat. This process takes an average of three hours.
When we are constantly eating frequent meals, we are constantly secreting insulin. This eventually leads to insulin resistance and Type II Diabetes. In addition, this cycle creates a huge stress load on the pancreas.
Leptin is our satiety hormone. It is our brain’s way of signaling that we have had enough and are satiated. Insulin and leptin work together so any insulin resistance will lead to leptin resistance. Therefore, small frequent meals also disrupt our body’s ability to feel hunger and satiation.
Ideally, we should eat three meals per day, spaced at least five hours apart, and with no snacking in between. This allows for the three-hour process for insulin and at least a two-hour window until our next meal. This two-hour window allows a hormone known as glucagon to be released. Glucagon is our fat burning hormone and is never released if insulin is still present. Insulin and glucagon are antagonists, so we must allow enough time in between meals for both to do their job.
So if we are constantly eating small meals throughout the day, we are constantly secreting insulin. This will cause insulin resistance, leptin resistance, and will inhibit the release of our fat burning hormone glucagon.
There are a few key principles that will aid this structure. When designing meals, focus on quality, quantity, and ratio. In terms of quality, fill your plate with high quality, nutritionally dense, organic food. For quantity, eat enough food that will keep you satiated until the next meal, ideally five hours later. Finally, use a ratio that fits your metabolic type. Refer to Paul Chek’s How to Eat, Move, and be Healthy or The Metabolic Typing Diet to fill out a questionnaire that will provide your unique ratio of macronutrients.
As a general rule of thumb, if we eat a meal that is too carb dense, we will experience energy highs and lows and will often be hungry again within two hours. This is due to the blood sugar rollercoaster from too much carbs. If we consume too much protein and fat, we may experience a decrease in energy and a feeling of sluggishness or lethargy. Becoming mindful of these feelings is a great way to fine-tune your meals.
Sleep and stress also play in important role. Poor sleep and stress result in higher cortisol levels, poor blood sugar regulation, and insulin and leptin resistance. Therefore, getting adequate sleep and having good stress-management tools will help keep your regimen intact and will aid in ideal energy utilization and fat loss.
The only exceptions are as follows. If you have a medical condition that requires more meals throughout the day, consult your physician for guidance. Intermittent fasting is also an exception. Some people enjoy this practice for various physiological and neurological benefits. Finally, rigorous exercise will deplete glycogen storage and raises our stress hormones. Therefore, an extra meal can be added post exercise to replenish glycogen storage, lower stress hormones, and aid in an anabolic response. Other than these few exceptions, eating three meals per day will allow greater fat loss, more stable and consistent energy, and a well-balanced mind and body.