Reader J recently e-mailed me a very interesting question and one that’s huge in the fitness world right now:
“I have recently decided to step away from all I know and love – – 5-6 small meals per day. Fire up that metabolism! Keep the blood sugar regular! etc, etc. I am instead trying out the No S diet(aka the Grandma Diet) which is No sweets, No seconds, No snacks, except on days that start with S and Special events. Keep in mind that when I use the word “diet” I don’t mean it as a temporary thing. I only adopt eating habits that I want to maintain.
Seems drastic, but I’m a binge eater. You wrote a post about us quite awhile back – – that is me. I’ve been struggling with it for awhile and really feel like I’ve made progress. Someone I talked to who is also a binge eater has found that the No S way of eating has saved her emotional life. The thing with binge eaters (or me, at least) is every time I eat, it’s hard to want to stop. So, limit the times I eat per day, and there’s no gray area. I don’t know. It’s only been a week so far and I’ll see how it goes, but one thing that makes me leery about it is worrying that I’m killing my metabolism.
So….here is the question you’ve been waiting for…is there any solid evidence that eating 5-6 times per day is better for your metabolism and fat burning than eating 3 meals a day?”
My short answer to J: Will you kill your metabolism by eating 3 squares a day? Oh heck to the no!! (It might even do exactly the opposite.) And also, huge fist bumps for making such progress with your binge eating!
My long answer to J: (Can I ever write a post in 600 words or less on here? Magic 8 ball says… not likely. Sigh)
Myth #1 You have to eat every few hours or risk killing your metabolism.
Busted: The studies that showed an increased metabolism due to multiple small meals were a) few and b) showed only a very small increase. While the “thermogenic effect” – i.e. the increased output of energy your body uses to burn food – is real, it’s so slight as to be inconsequential in most practical situations. Unless you are a pro athlete, bodybuilder or fitness model it’s unlikely that this will make much difference to you. In addition, other studies on intermittent fasting have showed that prolonged periods without eating can be excellent for your metabolism because it allows for better hormone regulation of leptin and gherlin, among other benefits. Lastly, all the research has shown that it’s way more important what you eat than when you eat it.
Caveat: If you are happily eating 5-6 small meals a day and loving it then by all means continue! I’m just trying to reassure you that if you don’t like eating- or logistically can’t eat- that often, you’ll still be just fine. Over the past nearly 2 years of Intuitive Eating I’ve found that when I’m really listening to my hunger I eat about 3 meals a day. Sometimes with a snack at about 4 p.m. And sometimes I don’t eat breakfast because I’m not hungry when I wake up. My metabolism’s fine and I’m happier because I’m not obsessing over meal timing. But not everyone is me, so find what works best for you!
Myth #2: A high metabolism is the best health goal.
Busted: Every time I see an article or hear someone talking about having a furnace for a metabolism, I cringe a little bit. While our metabolism is vital to regulating our bodies and health (note: you can’t “kill” your metabolism, unless you really mean dead in which case carry on), higher is not necessarily better. Upside to an ultra-fast metabolism: you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. Downside to an ultra-fast metabolism: you die younger. Yes you read that correctly. Like a race car that runs at top speed or a fire that burns hot and fast, people with faster metabolisms show signs of cellular aging faster than people with more, ahem, efficient metabolisms. (Although to be accurate, this fact is ameliorated by moderate exercise and healthy eating.) Scientists think this is a major reason why women, other factors being held equal, so often outlive men. We have less muscle (expensive to maintain in metabolic terms) and have slower metabolisms (lower operating costs) and are therefore more efficient at getting the most out of our resources. That said, I know that sitting back watching a thin friend wolf down half a chocolate cake sucks no matter how many times you (grouchily) say to yourself “Well at least my body is more efficient!”
Caveat: If you have a naturally high metabolism, I’m not telling you to freak out. You were born that way and you should embrace your race car! I’m just trying to say there are a wide range of healthy metabolisms that people are born with and we’re taught that fast = good and slow = bad when the reality is much more nuanced. This is especially important to me because so many diet pills are marketed with the tag “increase your metabolism!” or “burn fat 400% faster!” or whatever when in truth they ought to be saying “Die sooner!” or “Get old 400% faster!” A slow metabolism isn’t necessarily bad (except for medical cases like hypothyroidism which obviously needs to be treated by a doctor) but diet pills are.
Myth #3 Your blood sugar should stay at the same level all the time.
Busted: Our bodies were designed to have our sugar levels fluctuate over the course of any given day. This idea that we have to eat every hour to keep our blood sugar consistent is silly. When you sleep your blood sugar drops precipitously and you aren’t harmed by that. Of course low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood sugar (diabetes) are real health problems and need to be taken seriously and treated but I don’t think that most people who complain of “low blood sugar” have hypoglycemia in the clinical sense. We’re going for moderation here. In fact, not eating in the case of fasting, rather than giving your body dangerously low blood sugar actually seems to increase your insulin sensitivity (a good thing) and make you less susceptible to wild swings.
Caveat: Again, I think you should eat however makes you feel healthiest. Some people feel best having small snacks throughout the day. But if you are eating purely because you are trying to keep your blood sugar levels “even”, that’s a losing (and pointless) battle. True story: I have a bodybuilder friend who was so concerned about this he bought an at-home blood-sugar testing kit and pricked his finger every waking hour for several weeks. He learned that it’s really hard to put band-aids on the tips of your fingers. Ok, he also learned that his blood sugar went up and down quite a bit and he was still fine. If you are still worried about your blood sugar, a doctor can test you for diabetes and hypoglycemia and give you the appropriate treatment.
Bottom Line: My metabolism is on the slower end of normal. I know this for a fact because I’ve had it tested multiple times. At first I was all depressed about my “flaw” but now I’ve learned to just tell people I’m the ultimate in efficiency and I’ll be dancing ’till I’m 100! Back when I first started this blog, I wrote a post all breathless about something that was supposed to turbo-charge my metabolism and Reader Andrew (long gone by now, I think) said he wasn’t interested in it. When I asked why he wouldn’t want a faster metabolism he said “Why would I want to fix something that’s not broken?” Amen, Andrew. Eat healthfully, exercise happily and don’t breathe asbestos.
What kind of metabolism do you have? Any other metabolic myths you’d like to bust? Anyone want to correct any of my above assertions? (I’ll be surprised if I wrote this whole post and didn’t get at least one thing wrong. User error!)
Biggest Caveat of All: I am NOT A DOCTOR. I’m not a health professional of any sort (unless you count me keeping several mental health practitioners in business and then yes, I’m totally a pro). I’m not trying to give advice but rather present you with the studies I’ve read over the past few years and my personal thoughts so that you can make your own best decisions!