How many meals a day should a dieter eat? Part 8 of the series: Dieting does it work for you?

How many meals a day should a dieter eat? Part 8 of the series: Dieting does it work for you?

Just to torture the average person, “experts” like to make things as complicated as possible. I personally enjoy complicated but, I fear what these “experts” are doing ultimately hurts most of us. I view dietary timing as story time, because doing so makes the subject just a little less frustrating for me. Your average ethical trainer, doctor, nutritionist, dietician (etcetera) will fail to tell you much when it comes to dietary timing. Instead they will simply say: do what works for you! I have to agree with the phrase, people should do what works for them. If the three meals a day standard dietary timing (Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner) works for you and you want to stick with it; by all means do it. The truth is these complicated systems with PERFECT USE will at BEST have a slight impact on the speed of your weight loss. They can however have an amazing impact on the comfort level of your life while you are trying to lose weight. For those seeking the ultra-lean look, you might just have to use some dietary timing wizardry to get there.

Story number one: The tale as old as society (maybe?) Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.

Proportions, contents, and when during the day we eat are all debated but one thing holds true: three satiating meals. By satiating I mean “full.” With a 2000-3000 calorie diet (most healthy weight non-dieters) can experience “full” three times a day. The feeling of full is comforting and cozy like a big hug that your meal just gave you… it’s great, just great. This feeling is so awesome that we become addicted to it and as with most addictions: we are always pursuing the more intense “full.” Thusly we slip from a healthy amount of calories to over eating.

A healthy amount of calories is simply how much you can eat without gaining weight. Guys can typically eat more without gaining weight than woman can. For me 2500-3000 is healthy on normal and rest days, and up to 5000 on training days, the average person would gain weight eating this much. The more muscle mass a person has the more calories they can eat in a day without gaining weight (one of the ways exercise increases your metabolism).   

When most people start a diet all they do is: keep the traditional Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner and switch from normal portions to “diet portions.” This portion switch does not typically work for people, because it is darn hard to feel a sensation of “full.” This lack of full and general feelings of misery leads to the average person quickly coming to the FALSE CONCLUSION that dieting does not work for them and they are bound to stay out of shape forever. (Out of shape in America is the average, so don’t beat yourself up too much. However, don’t be afraid to get in shape, you can do it, and it is good for you.)

DIET PORTIONS DO NOT = DIETING, this is true 9 times out of ten, for one reason: snacking. Dieters typically snack and when people that did not previously practice snacking start snacking everyday: Snacking becomes additional calories and additional calories are overeating not dieting. For God’s sake don’t ever consider simply reducing your portions to every meal, because it is a miserable way to diet: you have to be just a bit smarter than this.

The three meals a day dietary timing structure is not bad, it is often the traditional way to eat, and works for most people. Healthy people who eat three meals a day eat one big meal, one medium meal and a small meal. The big, medium, small template can be arranged in any order. I find it best for me to have breakfast be the medium meal, lunch is the smallest meal and dinner is the largest. Satiety is addictive so why fight the addiction and make your diet harder than it has to be.

I like to feel full after diner because “full” makes me a bit tired for a little while, giving me an unwind that is nice at the end of a day. I do not like to eat until I am full for breakfast and lunch to avoid the energy draining effect of large meals. This temporary lack of energy after a large meal is due to your body using more of its resources (namely blood oxygen and blood sugar). Large meals make you feel like you have lost a significant amount of blood because your body is using more of it on digestion than it normally does.

Just like the phrase you have to spend money to make money; your body must use blood sugar to get blood sugar. If the meal is balanced and the size is sensible the fluctuation in blood sugar level due to eating is mild. If the meal is a feast the fluctuation in blood sugar, no matter how balanced the meal is, will cause a steep dip in blood sugar. Your body responds to this meal induced low blood sugar by making you tired in the hope that you will take a nap. And yes all of this blood sugar stuff applies to non-diabetics as well. Blood sugar regulation is even harder for diabetics, but this stuff applies to everyone it is simply how the body works.

Low blood sugar is what stimulates you to take your after Thanksgiving Day feast nap. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that you consume all of the time. It is prevalent in most of the protein you get. The level of Tryptophan in turkey is almost exactly the same as it is in chicken, and many food items have much higher levels: some nuts have twice as much and egg whites have nearly four times as much. Tryptophan is good news: Tryptophan as a precursor to serotonin synthesis thusly it may be in part responsible for the happy feelings after your thanksgiving day Turkey.            

Story number one has three big fairy tales that go along with it: Myth #1: Breakfast has to be eaten at breakfast time, no matter what. Myth #2: Eating right before bed makes you fat. Myth #3: Skipping meals is bad for you.

It is universal knowledge that eating when you are not hungry leads to overeating, you know this. Even if this is the first time you heard this, you know this. This is boredom eating or simply eating for entertainment. Both of which are either guilty pleasures or bad habits that induce guilty feelings. Boredom eating or entertainment eating (popcorn with a movie for example) every now and then is fine, but if you have a problem with boredom eating dieting can be extremely difficult for you. If you answer “Yes” to either of these questions: Do I automatically open the fridge when I walk past it? Do I eat just to eat? You perhaps have an issue with this type of eating. The good news is a little bit of self-awareness can go a long way with fighting this.

Myth # 1: Breakfast has to be eaten at breakfast time, no matter what.

People seem to believe that they must eat breakfast. This is simply not true, if your body is telling you that you are fine without breakfast than most likely you are fine without breakfast. There are some people who should never go without eating some small thing for breakfast (like those with really bad diabetes); most of us can safely skip it. Skipping breakfast has a risk: overeating later at lunch or causing you to snack too much. The average breakfast skipper gains weight or weights more for those two reasons; they have a tendency to make it worse with things like a sedentary, always on their butt, lifestyle. Breakfast skippers tend to eat carbohydrate packed snacks (most snacks are carb rich) before lunch or in place of a proper breakfast. If you eat donuts for breakfast you are the worst type of breakfast skipper, the kind that thinks they ate a breakfast.

Breakfast is breaking a fast, and breaking a fast should always be done with healthy foods and never be done with junk foods. If you simply must have donuts, have them for lunch (this is an unhealthy practice but it is not as bad as having them for breakfast). When you wake up you are in a “post absorptive” fasting state (unless you had a midnight snack). The last time you ate was many hours ago (dinner) and your body has been done absorbing the nutrients from that food for a while. Your body is not “running on empty.” Before you eat breakfast you are running on your bodies fat reserves. It takes calories to get the calories that are stored in your fat cells, just as it takes calories to get the calories that are stored in food. Essentially by eating breakfast you are stopping this process, but don’t worry that’s fine. Your body wants to eat and will, for better or worse, absorb more of the healthy good stuff or bad stuff of breakfast. (You will get more out of a once-a-day multivitamin taken with your first meal of the day). Eating a sensible healthy breakfast helps control hunger all day and never made anyone fat.

Breakfast has a ton of benefits but guess what, they don’t come from eating when the sun is rising out of sky. The benefits of breakfast come from us treating the meal as important… people who eat breakfast but don’t treat it as important experience none of the benefits of breakfast. It is not eating at breakfast time that lowers your cholesterol it is the soluble fiber of the whole grains. A good breakfast always has things like dietary fiber, vitamins, protein and even fat that makes you full and prevents hunger. If we were wise enough to treat every meal with importance regardless of WHEN we ate it, we could be getting these coveted breakfast benefits with every meal we ate. In case you were wondering about the breakfast for dinner thing it is just fine (it is often mistakenly thought to be unhealthy).

Myth #2: Eating right before bed makes you fat.

When you are asleep your metabolism is slower, because your heart rate is lower and simply put you are doing less stuff. Eating immediately before bed and then getting very little sleep does effectively prevent your body from entering into its’ fat-burning post absorptive state. This is generally not true if you are getting a full nights rest, but the amount of time you are in fat burn mode is still reduced. All of this sounds much worse than it actually is.

These are facts, and they are well established. However, your body if you are even slightly active does an amazing job of combating these facts.

This myth can be true if you are eating a non-healthy snack.

Body builders have known it for years if you get protein and nutrients right before bed your body will heal faster. When we sleep our bodies natural levels of human growth hormone are much higher, sleeping is our primary time for healing. Unfortunately, by the time we get to sleep after eating dinner at a normal time, our blood amino acids levels are already starting to fall. By the time we get a few hours into our slumber our blood amino acid levels and blood nutrient levels are too low to heal ourselves as best as we potentially could. Eating something healthy with protein, right before bed prevents low blood amino acid levels, and muscular catabolism. Catabolism is the breakdown of body tissue, and anabolism is the building of body tissue. Healing, anabolism, requires a good bit of calories, protein and other nutrients, so if you eat something healthy before bed it will all even out a bit.

If you are hungry before bed eat something! Preferably eat something healthy. Going to bed hungry is just strait uncomfortable, it sucks; being sent to bed without supper is an old-timey punishment for when children are bad. (This is not unhealthy for them but society and the law tends to look down upon the practice.)

                A huge cause of muscular catabolism is stress; stress hormones such as cortisol (and other glucocorticoids) have a catabolic action to them… So when you hear people say that their stressful job is eating them alive. Stress will quite literally eat you alive. For those in training, if you de-stress yourself and learn to relax a bit, you will see improved gains.

Myth #3: Skipping a meal is bad for you.

Your body has a ton of different coping mechanisms to handle different dietary timing. Cultures of the world have wildly different views on eating than we do and some of these cultures… only eat twice a day. (Some only eat once a day but it is considerably rarer). If you skip lunch most of the time you are just cutting calories from your diet and as long as you don’t eat more later on you will lose weight. Meal skipping is a very old method of dieting. If you skip breakfast, or breakfast and lunch you are intermittent fasting; skipping breakfast and lunch is something referred to as “warrior style” and it is growing in popularity amongst those following the Paleo diet. If you skip all three meals and eat nothing else you are fasting. All fasting has been shown to have health benefits.

The commonly talked about risk with skipping meals is low blood sugar, but this can (for most of us) be avoided with proper diet. If you skip lunch but had a proper breakfast your blood sugar should be just fine until dinner, perhaps have an early dinner. If you skip breakfast your body avoids low blood sugar by using your fat as fuel (as it has been for a few hours while you slept). Skipping dinner might be miserable because you will go to bed hungry but it really is not bad for you. When a person of moderate health skips dinner, their body copes by using its fat reserves sooner, this prevents low blood sugar.            

Story number 2: The lie of 4, 5, 6, and 7 meals a day        

I want to get one thing perfectly certain the 4, 5, 6, and seven meals a day dietary timing plans are absolute BS. If you are on one of these dietary timing plans stop, if your doctor told you to do this go to a new doctor. These plans are near impossible to follow perfectly and typical use is straight-up fattening. A typical person following these plans will over eat and over eating will always causes weight gain (body builders will over eat to gain muscle but most of us will just get fat). People who do manage to follow one of these plans and cut calories will lose weight, but they won’t do so any faster than other dieting techniques, and following these 4, 5, 6 and seven meals a day plans is MISERABLE. The studies that actually examine these plans (most typically 6 meals a day) find that there is not a significant difference for weight loss between 3 meals a day and 6. It is true that studies have shown that eating frequently can rev up your metabolism, but the studies that show this involve eating dozens of times a day (more on this later). Life should always be about enjoying life, and dieting does not have to be miserable. Eating six times a day is the most commonly practiced number, and it is often a terrible dieting experience.

These plans have too many lies in them to actually list them all but I will list a few.

LIE: Your stomach should not be stretched out to accommodate large meals, and the digestive system is not good at processing large meals.

The stomach is incredibly able to stretch out; in fact it is so capable of this it could be called a talent and it is a detriment to us. The average weight loss surgery these days often involves reducing the size of the stomach to impede the stomachs amazing ability to stretch out. Yes your stomach could rupture if you feasted too much, but it is very rare because it is very difficult and PAINFUL to eat that much.

When we eat large meals more of the bodies’ resources are used to process the meal and digestion is slowed down, so that we get the nutrients slowly over time. Eating large sugary/ carb rich meals can cause huge spikes in blood sugar, but eating small sugary meals will do the same thing. Just had a 100 calorie candy bar? Expect your blood sugar to shoot up shortly. (Most 100 calorie snack packs should be avoided and/or considered candy). When your blood sugar shoots up to high levels (140mg/dl and up) your body releases insulin and a few other hormones to lower your blood sugar which coincidentally stimulate fat storage.

The difference between eating a large sugary/ carb rich meal and a small similar snack is the large one will keep your blood sugar up longer. High blood sugar is bad, but a balanced typical size to large meal should not cause high blood sugar. (Feasting temporarily causes the opposite, low blood sugar).

Your blood glucose levels after 12 hours of fasting should be less than 100mg/dl, and random blood sugar testing taken at any time should not exceed 140mg/dl. You are considered pre-diabetic if your levels are higher than this. A fasting level over 125mg/dl and a random of 200mg/dl is powerful indicator of diabetes and you are likely a diabetic and you should go to a doctor to get treatment. You can buy the meters required to do these tests at nearly all pharmacies, they are not too pricy.         

LIE: Eating six meals a day speeds up your metabolism.

As proof of this statement proponents of these many meals a day diet plan actually point to Glycemic index studies… this makes me laugh. The basic format of a glycemic index study is: measure blood sugar levels than, feed someone and measure their blood sugar levels several times until the level returns to normal. A typical GI study uses 10-20 people as subjects. All these studies measure is how fast the sugar content of a food gets into your blood, so pointing to them as proof of anything is just plain silly. Any time, any diet points to these studies as evidence it should be considered a red flag.

Another thing pointed to is studies that involved bed ridden hospital patients who were fed very little at a time using an automatic machine through feeding tubes a dozen times a day or more… How the proponents of six meals a day people can call 12+ small liquid only feedings 6 meals; I am not sure. If you believe that 2+2 = 8, you were perhaps convinced that even though you can’t eat 12+ meals a day you should eat 6 meals a day. This kind of evidence is correlative evidence, correlative evidence is better known as happenstance, and this type of evidence is not admissible in a court for a good reason: it is often complete Bull poopy.

The six meals a day thing has been studied by respectable doctors and researchers many times. As it turns out there is no significant difference in weight loss for those following three meals as compared to those using six meals!

Diet can speed up your metabolism slightly; by eating a balanced diet with plenty of fiber you will avoid those nasty fattening blood sugar spikes. This is not truly a faster metabolism but for all practical purposes it can be considered as such. You can eat a SLIGHTLY higher amount of calories and not gain weight if you are on a balanced diet, but there is absolutely zero magic involved in this so don’t expect too much.

FRUAD: Eating six meals a day helps avoid hunger.

This is not exactly a lie because it is actually true if you are eating six nutritious balanced meals, but eating 3 nutritious balanced meals has the same hunger avoiding effect. The truth is there is no such thing as a magic hunger avoiding number of meals that you can eat. Many people can actually not be hungry all day by eating one really large dinner.

It should be stressed that with perfect use (which is darn hard to do) eating six meals a day is not bad for your health. For most it is less comfortable, less convenient, and generally less fun to eat six meals a day. However, if you find it easier to lose weight using six meals a day, you are a minority, but oh well keep doing it because it works for you.

Story number 3: A tale of two diet plans; constant snacking with no meals and intermittent fasting.

Both eating a very small amount dozens of times a day, a practice often called nibbling, and intermittent fasting have been shown to mildly to moderately improve the speed of your metabolism. I could not find consistent numbers that describe how much faster everything got. The honest truth is more study is needed. But the information we do currently understand to be earnestly established fact and what we in good faith currently theorize looks really promising.

Most of the science of these opposite concepts is well grounded. Both dietary timing techniques scientifically increase the speed of your metabolism; but don’t get your hopes up because it is not by much. These dietary timing techniques really are not meant for casual dieters, because they are hard and require more will power than the average dieter has. If you are serious about dieting and you need to lose the weight as fast as possible both of these techniques can give you the edge you have been looking for. If you want six pack abs or a “cut” appearance using one of these dietary timing techniques could really help. Again, be forewarned, they are difficult.


The science of nibbling is mostly about preventing blood sugar spikes in either direction. Nibbling gives your body a constant supply of fuel, and when your body has a constant supply of anything it sees little need to conserve things. This is true of every nutrient, not just carbs. If you have a diet low in vitamins and minerals; your body will do its best to conserve any dietary vitamins and minerals and any that are already in you. The same is true of fat and proteins. (This is not an excuse to be on an unhealthy diet.)

The Inuit eat mainly meat and consequently get very low amounts of dietary vitamin C; however when tested their blood levels of vitamin C are normal. Vitamin C cannot be biosynthesized, but our body can and will conserve what we got and what we get.   

Nibbling keeps your blood sugar very stable; thusly your heart freely burns as many calories as it wants. Your heart will do this by either pumping slower and harder or slightly faster. This has primarily been shown with the heart but athletes of all kinds have seen improvement in performance of their skeletal muscles. Marathon runners commonly carb-load before races (get plenty of carbs from food) and drink sports drinks during races to maintain blood sugar and electrolyte levels.

Nibbling gives you a constant supply of fuel so your engine does not feel the need to go light on the accelerator. Nibbling indeed does with typical use give you more energy. The problem with nibbling is that you truly must eat 12+ times a day… this is very time consuming. It is extremely un-fun to never get a real mouthful of food. Although it is possible to experience very little or no hunger with nibbling; it is near impossible to feel full. The improbability of satiety on a typical nibbling schedule is reason enough for me to avoid the practice.

I am currently personally researching the possibility of modifying a typical nibbling dieting routine to include a real meal or hopefully two. I see a lot of hope with nibbling if it can be successfully modified. If I manage to successfully modify the practice of nibbling, I will post the results. I will test on myself first (all good trainers should self-test their techniques). When I have done what I feel is a significant amount of testing on myself. I do have a couple of clients that are really excited about trying out my modified nibbling program.

Poor nutrition in general is a personal trainer’s worst enemy because their client’s gains will be lessened by poor nutrition. When a client does not progress, they have a tendency to blame the trainer and the trainer’s techniques. Not all trainers or techniques are created equal, but most of the time if a client is not progressing like they should it is due to poor nutrition or not enough rest. (A real trainer will take some responsibility for this; it is our jobs after all to give you all the info and guidance we can.) I recommend consuming foods rich in protein shortly after your workout, as it has been shown to increase gains.

The idea behind the nibbling program I am trying to develop is to use foods that are safe enough and nutritious enough to be staples and turn them into no-bake cookies. Don’t worry I will post the recipes. One of the recipes should if all goes as it has been going be ready for posting on the first of January. The dozen no-bake cookies a day recipe that I am currently testing and perfecting meet the minimum requirements the body needs for fat and protein, while providing enough dietary fiber and calories to successfully prevent hunger. There are no protein powders in it, and it is very cheap and fairly easy to make an entire month’s supply. It is not vegan, but I am testing a vegan recipe so I will post it sometime probably around mid-February.

Anyway back to the article.

Truthfully if you are not interested in six-pack abs or being extremely lean you can skip to the final message at the end.

Intermittent Fasting: Intermittent fasting can be done in many ways but the basic premise is the same increase the amount of time your body is in a fasted state. Alternative day fasting (eating every other day) is the most widely studied of the types of intermittent fasting. Alternative day fasting has been shown to dramatically increase the lifespan of many types of laboratory animals, as compared to standard feeding and calorie restriction. (Calorie restriction has been shown to increase the lifespan of humans.) It is logical to guess that Alternative day fasting could increase the lifespan of humans but the truth is we don’t know yet if it does or not. What we do know is that fasting, like all calorie restriction, stimulates weight loss.

Other common intermittent fasting structures are periodic fasting (fasting for a day or two in a week for example) and 16 hour fasting. Traditional intermittent fasting is 16 hour fasting, meaning you only eat during 8 hours of the day.  

All fasting (juice fasting included but to a lesser extent) has a metabolic regulating effect, which for most means an increased metabolism. But intermittent fasting has been shown by the body-building community to help the body get extremely lean. Water fasting alone will bring the body down to about 10% body fat (skinny people are usually 15-20%). Most diets will not easily bring the body down past 15% body fat, this is fine for most. Without extreme levels of exercise, dieting past 15% body fat and water fasting past 10% body fat will result in additional muscle and other tissue loss, but fat content has a tendency to remain stable. It is obviously possible to get a six pack without intermittent fasting, but for all but the lucky few it requires a TON of exercise and pretty intense calorie restriction. It is rare that a person gets a six-pack easily, but intermittent fasting can really help.

It is likely that many, if not most, of the people reading this right now have what resembles a six pack… it is just hiding. To have a six pack to show you are going to need 4% to a max of about 7% body fat, this is the hard part. The muscles of the abdomen are simply shaped like that of the stomach of the guys on fitness magazine covers, so if you get to skinny you can “accidently” have six pack abs. Doing abdominal workouts are good for many reasons, except oddly for getting a six-pack. Working out can help them “pop” but dieting is the only way to actually get them. Intermittent fasting can help you get there much faster and easier.

Intermittent fasting, unlike other fasting which merely regulates, can truly speed up the metabolism. (Water fasting can temporarily speed up the metabolism.) The primary way intermittent fasting speeds up the metabolism is by reducing insulin residence. It is known that intermittent fasting does this, but why and how it does this is honestly still in the theory stage.

When the body eats, the pancreases produces insulin, the cells respond to this insulin. Eventually, the cells of the body can become resistant to insulin (often but not always indirectly as a result of inactivity and poor diet). This means the pancreases must make more insulin and this complicated little hormone does more than just regulate blood sugar it also triggers fat storage.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about intermittent fasting is that people find they can slightly over eat when they are not fasting to make up for the calories that would be eaten.

I have tried most types of intermittent fasting, and they all are very effective for me. They are all hard to do. The body does eventually stop being so hungry and hunger becomes a non-issue with intermittent fasting (for me it happens very quickly about 2 days). People often have good experiences with intermittent fasting, but just the same it is not really for the casual dieter.

A final message:

The casual dieter should do just what “casual dieter” would imply: they should diet casually. Have patience and allow the weight loss to come at the speed it comes. If you are not satisfied with the speed of weight loss try new things: different diets, different exercises. Extremism is never safe, so if it sounds too good to be true… well you know how the saying goes. A diet that advertises as ultra-fast is likely either a lie or a bit dangerous.

1 comment so far

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