The 6 meals a day diet is promoted by many fitness professionals. And for good reason: it's very effective at burning fat.
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I used it to lose about 10 pounds over a few weeks.
But I don't use it anymore.
Why? Well, let's look at the benefits and drawbacks of eating 6 meals a day.
When you eat something, your body spends some energy to break it down and digest it. This is called metabolic thermogenesis, or the heat and energy it takes your body to break down food.
If you eat 6 small meals a day, your body will spend more energy than normal to break down your food - in theory... Your internal organs will be working all day long, maximizing your thermogenisis and using more energy than if you ate just 2 or 3 big meals.
At least, that's the conventional wisdom. But it's wrong. Why? Keep reading...
Since you're eating every 2 to 3 hours, it doesn't feel so much like a diet. You'll always have just another hour 'till your next meal.
If you know about insulin and weight loss, then you understand that insulin is the primary hormone that works to put on fat. By controlling your insulin, and keeping it low, you can really accelerate your fat loss.
If you eat a big meal or two, your insulin spikes in response to your increased blood sugar. And high levels of insulin mean that you put on fat easier.
By eating the 6 meals a day diet, you maintain a low level of insulin all day long. So it's harder to put on fat, and easier to burn it.
Rather than having high insulin levels around large-meal times, and putting on fat then.
At the University of Massachusetts, people who ate at least 4 times a day were 45% less likely to be overweight than those who ate fewer, bigger meals. Also, at the University of Michigan a study found that the more frequently people ate, the lower their body weight and related measurements tended to be.
Further, in a different study at Nagoya University in Japan, two groups of athletes were each assigned to eat 1,200 calories a day for two weeks. Half of them ate the calories in 2 big meals, and the other half ate their calories in 6 smaller meals. They each lost 11 pounds of bodyweight, but those who ate more frequently lost 3 more pounds of fat and 3 pounds less of muscle than the twice a day meal eaters, on average.
As you can see above, most of the studies done regarding eating 6 small meals a day are correlative. That means that, in general, people who eat more often weigh less.
But while many people who eat more often may weight less, that does not mean that if you change your eating habits you will weigh less. Especially if you're counting calories, you can eat frequently or not and - as long as you hit your calorie goal - still lose weight.
And as for the study from Nagoya University… Losing 11 pounds in 2 weeks isn't healthy! Not for athletes, not for anyone.
The 6 meals a day diet may be really effective for keeping muscle if you're an intense, working-out-every-day-athlete. But you're probably not.
But the last nail in the coffin for the 6 meals a day diet are the studies showing that you don't actually burn more fat by eating more small meals! See, you expend the same amount of energy digesting 2,000 calories of food whether it's eaten all at once or whether you space it out.
So the 6 meals a day diet is scientifically killed. It still might be your personal preference, but only because you like it.
m of eating a healthy diet, but eating frequently encourages you to eat (and burn) carbohydrates, not fat. Your metabolism will use up your carbs before your fat (or the protein of your muscles). That means that if you're constantly eating (especially if you're eating high-carb meals), then you're training your body to get into the habit of burning carbs and then having a sugar crash - just in time for more carbs.
On the other hand, eating fats and proteins, and occasionally fasting, act to get your body in the habit of metabolizing its fat stores. That means that when you're exercising (or sleeping or working), you'll be running off your stored fat.
It's true that you can protect yourself from insulin spikes (assuming your snacks aren't sugar cubes) by eating more frequently. Thus helping you (a) avoid putting on more fat, and (b) burn the fat you do have.
But there are other better ways to keep your insulin level down. One is to eat a low-carbohydrate diet, rich in fat and protein, with leafy green vegetables on the side.
Another is to trust that you're cutting back on your calories enough so that when you eat and release insulin, the amount is negligible compared to your calorie deficit.
And the best is to eat less frequently and low-carb. So that you just release less insulin all around.
Frankly, if I'm on a 6 meals a day diet the constant eating makes it easy for me to eat too much. Since I'm always eating, it takes rigid control to avoid eating too much.
Especially for maintaining weight after a diet, I've found that getting in the habit of frequent eating just doesn't work for me. After the diet I tend to over-eat frequently, which is easy if over-eating means an extra 50 to 100 calories in every meal.
A egg and an apple isn't really a meal. It's a snack, and I don't feel full after eating one.
Some people feel satiated eating all day long because, well, they're eating all day long. But I get aggravated with tiny meals that don't fill me up, and really just remind me that I'm hungry.
I'd rather have a big steak than 6 snacks throughout the day.
Eating every 2 - 3 hours is difficult. What if you have a game, an event, a desire to go watch a movie, or be otherwise spontaneous?
This can easily disrupt your carefully planned 6 meals a day diet.
Even when I'm on a diet, I like going out to with friends - to have fun, hang out, or just go to a great restaurant. Eating less than normal is much easier if you don't focus on it - which is exactly what doing fun things is good for.
Also, if you're used to having 1 - 2 big meals, you can time your meal to coincide with eating out once a week. When I’m losing weight, I permit myself 1 meal out at a restaurant a week with friends. Hey, I like roast duck and tenderloin steak and expertly prepared beef or sashimi - and a big-meal schedule will accommodate a normal-sized meal with friends.
The real secret is a plan to cut back on your calorie intake in a way that you can live with. If it's a 6 meals a day diet, that's great. If it's fewer meals, that's great too.
I don't particularly like the 6 meals a day diet, even though I've had success losing weight with it. Since I've also had success losing weight on other plans as well.
Figure out what works for you. Don't you just hate honest, truthful advice like that? ;-)
When I'm dieting to lose weight, I eat 1 - 2 large meals a day while doingintermittent fasting. I get to eat tasty, big meals.
Would I burn a few more calories eating 6 small meals per day? Maybe.
But I'm already cutting down on my calories by 500 a day so I lose a healthy ~1 pound a week, and I'm using intermittent fasting to lose fat as well, which works just fine for me.
Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!
6 Meals A Day Diet: Why I Don't Use It
1. Foster, Helen. 2007. Eat All Day Diet: Eat 6 Meals a Day And Lose Weight Fast! London: Hamlyn. Pp. 8.
4. Ibid. Pp. 10.
5. Zinczenko, David, and Ted Spiker. 2010. The New Abs Diet: The Six Week Plan to Flatten Your Stomach And Keep You Lean For Life. London: Rodale. Pp. 98
6. Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet”. Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101. Epub 2009 Nov 30. PubMed PMID: 19943985. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19943985.
7. Taubes, Gary. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, And The Controversial Science of Diet And Health. New York: Anchor Books. Pp. 408.
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