How often should I eat? That is a question I am sometimes asked by my patients who are trying to be healthier. If you search the web you will find all sorts of answers and self claimed experts who promote one sort of eating frequency over the other. The two most common promoted patterns are the small frequent meals and intermittent fasting.
Small frequent meal believers promote eating small amounts of food throughout the day. The assumption is that by eating frequently you keep your metabolism high throughout the day without overwhelming your body with bolus of calories at any one time.
In contrast, intermittent fasters (IF) promote eating 1500-2000 calories a day 5 days a week and restricting your food intake to 400-500 calories the other 2 days. A gentler form of intermittent fasting calls for regular food consumption during the day but a fasting period of 12-16 hours in a 24 cycle. This is achieved by eating an early dinner and then nothing to eat till morning or lunch (water, coffee/tea with no sugar is permitted). Made more simple, IM basically takes away all that snacking out of your diet. Most importantly is the bedtime snacks which a lot of us are guilty of. This includes both healthy and unhealthy foods. Even fruits count as a snack. So, IM promotes eating 2-3 meals and no snacking. You can drink tea, coffee or water freely.
Complicating this matter even further is the question of calories vs quality. For a long time most diets were focused on calories; they restricted your intake based on amount of calories, but not the quality of the food. If you have read HLMD content you can immediately see the flawed in the calorie concept. 100 calories from a chocolate or commercial fruit juice is in no way the same as 100 calories from some nuts or a serving of fruit.
SO, what is the right answer.
Here is what the current scientific evidence has to offer:
We now believe that Insulin is one of the major hormones contributing to obesity and diabetes. In addition, most foods (not just carbs) stimulate insulin release. Research has shown that when our body is continuously exposed to insulin few things occur:
we tend to store more fat
Our body weight set point is increased: meaning our brain will set in a complex array of hormonal responses to increase our weight to a higher set point. Our appetite increases, metabolism slows down and fat storage increases.
So, putting it all together, based on current evidence, you should focus on eating high quality food and follow some sort of intermittent fasting protocol. There is no difference between which IF you do. Pick what works for you, but be sure to follow a plan that is sustainable and will not interfere with your mood or energy levels. Based on my own clinical experience with patients, extreme fasting is not sustainable, and it may interfere with your mood and energy levels. So, maybe fasting for two days is not feasible, but restricting your food intake to 6-10 hours in a day is very doable. 2-3 large meals with no snacking in between, allowing your insulin to go down between each meal. And last meal at least 3 hours before bedtime. You may be surprised how soon your body will adjust and your hunger actually goes down. Of course you are allowed to have drinks with no calories (tea or coffee with no sugar, sweetener or cream, a little milk is fine). And you should continue to hydrate with plain water throughout the day.
For instance, this is what I strive to do (I stay strive because life is hectic, sometimes dinner is much later than planned):
Dinner: goal is 6pm. Bedtime is 9:30pm.
Plenty of hydration. 2-3 cups of plain coffee in the morning and some sort of tea in the afternoon.
Nothing to eat from 6pm to 730am.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. If you are a diabetic and are on insulin this may not be the right thing for you. Talk to your doctor or a diabetic certified nutritionist first.
And if you are a serious recreational athlete who exercises for more than an hour a day then you may need to have a healthy snack before your exercise. Be sure to have one of your major meals within an hour after your exercise. Your body needs healthy, rich nutrition to rebuild and repair. As a recreational triathlete who does most of his exercises early morning before the household or the roosters wake up, I always have a small snack (coffee with a banana and teaspoon of peanut butter) before my 445am work out. I am done by 6:15am and have my breakfast around 7:15-730. Meanwhile I continue to hydrated throughout my pre, during and post exercise.
If you are a professional athlete then you may need to snack. But snacking for the serious athlete is beyond the scope of this blog. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more help or seek other professional help.
If you do snack (due to a medical condition or if you are a pro-athlete that really needs snacking to get in calories) then focus on high quality carbs (fruits, vegetables), fats (nuts, peanut butter, whole fat dairy) and proteins (nuts, peanut butter, greek yogurt cottage cheese). Avoid low quality snacks such as chips, cookies, juices, protein or energy bars.
In summary, eat high quality food , in appropriate portion size, distributed among 2-3 meals a day with no snacking and allow yourself a 12-16 hour fasting period.
To learn everything you need to know about how to start eating healthy, how to exercise and live a healthy life be sure to visit HealthierlifeMD and enroll in one of our many educational options.
1) Effects of intermittent fasting on health, agings and disease.
Rafael de Cabo, Ph.D., and Mark P. Mattson, Ph.D. 2) Intermittent fasting: surprising update By Monique Tillo Harvard Health publishing
3) Intermittent fasting interventions for treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis Harris, Leanne1Hamilton, Sharon3Azevedo, Liane B.3Olajide, Joan3De Brún, Caroline3Waller, Gillian3Whittaker, Vicki3Sharp, Tracey4Lean, Mike1Hankey, Catherine1,∗Ells, Louisa