1 April 2011

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: You need to eat every few hours to lose weight

Nicole Senior

Fact: To lose weight you need to eat less over the day and constant snacking may impede your efforts
I’ve read many websites, books and diet programs that say you must eat every few hours or the body will go into ‘starvation mode’ which slows the metabolism and encourages weight regain. This is incorrect. I’m all for eating regular balanced meals, but insisting everyone snack every few hours is simply not necessary and may actually encourage overeating and weight gain.

When it comes to weight loss, the total amount of food you eat is what matters not how often you eat. I’m not recommending it, but you could eat one large meal a day and still lose weight if the energy contained in the meal was less than your needs. ‘Starvation mode’ is a non-scientific term but perhaps describes ketosis: the state of burning fat instead of carbohydrate (glucose). Rather than something to be avoided, this is the end goal of reducing body fat. Very Low Calorie Diets (VLCDs) invoke ketosis quickly and that’s why they work. These have been used by health professionals for very large patients when rapid weight loss is needed for health reasons. Every successful weight loss diet must have a little ‘starvation mode’ for it to work.

Your metabolism does not become permanently slowed by eating less food, or eating less often. Metabolic derangement is not why many people regain weight after dieting, but rather they slide back into old habits and fail to eat less to suit their smaller body weight. Your metabolic rate goes up and down relative to body size, lean muscle mass, energy (food) intake and exercise. It’s an unfortunate fact that once you’ve lost weight on a diet, you need to eat less than you did before; you need a new normal to maintain the loss. You can minimise this effect by exercising to maintain or increase your muscle mass because muscle is ‘hungrier’ than fat and demands more metabolic energy.

Individuals vary in their need to snack, and this can change over a lifetime. I remember as a young adult experiencing quite debilitating hunger (I called it ‘cotton wool head’) if I didn’t eat between meals, yet now I find I don’t need to. If I feel peckish between meals the reason is often boredom or because food is there, not because I’m actually hungry. Does this sound familiar?

The practical downside of the ‘you must snack’ advice is that it’s hard to find suitable snacks. Easily available snacks are usually nutrient-poor and oversized. In this day and age our demand for convenience means it is too easy to snack unwisely.

To lose weight you need to eat less and move more. If you perform better snacking between meals, make sure they are nutritious foods and fit within your daily kilojoule budget – you may need to reduce the size of your meals to achieve this. If you don’t need to snack between meals, don’t.

If you’d like more common sense nutrition advice, check out Nicole’s website HERE.


Meredith said...

thank you very much for this. I have often felt I "should" eat a morning snack, even though I am not hungry. I worried that I would derail my efforts by not eating often, now I know I don't have to.

CJephson said...

When trying to lose wait it is important not to go too long without food simply because most of us will find it hard to "stick to the plan" when we feel famished. Therefore a healthy snack, like a banana, can indeed be helpful at times.

Tracer said...

This is not true for everyone - I have reactive hypoglycemia (I have Hashimoto's & coeliac) and I have no chance of keeping my sugar levels, level without eating ~6 times a day; surely it's the total intake:output each day that's important, not how frequently you eat, at least for many people?

Unknown said...

Great article! Thanks for debunking that myth. I had always thought that it if I do not 'graze' throughout the day, my metabolisn would slowly come to a screeching halt. It does make sense: eat less, move more!

Anonymous said...

Agree with Carolyn. There are many individual differences in metabolism, activity level, food choices, stress levels and so on. This is something that needs to be tailored to the individual.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with this article in so many ways. Eating 6+ meals per day is about meticulously controlling your protein, carb (only good carbs), and fat (only good fats) intake. The ratios of those 3 are supposed to be tuned by the individual to achieve specific goals towards losing fat OR building muscle. In addition, don't knock it if you haven't tried it. I've added 7 lbs of lean muscle in 8 weeks and subsequently cut my body fat to 9% in the weeks following in the calorie deficient portion of my regiment. Oh yeah, my energy levels are through the roof on this diet, which I thoroughly take advantage of. Whew, I feel better.

Gabby said...

I strongly disagree. I am a Personal Trainer and hold a fine level of nutrition and psychological knowledge. Eating little and often is the best way to keep blood sugars constant in turn reducing your chances of developing diabetes. It also keeps your digestive system healthy thus reducing diseases like bowel cancer. Large meals lead to over eating. If you are not getting peckish between meals your meals are too large. I have never met an athlete that eats one or even 3 meals a day. The cave man would have nibbled as he came across vegetation not skeduled himself meal times!

Anonymous said...

Nicole, you may be right in physiological terms about one big meal a day, I don't know, but psychologically, for me, to feel not deprived and hungry during long hours of work, I need to eat regularly. When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 11 years ago, my dietitian's advice was to eat every 3 hours, and over 4 months I lost around 25 kg. Of course exercise is important, but it's also important to "refuel" after exercise. And there are HEAPS of low GI snacks available (I carry them with me wherever I go in case hunger strikes) - some of my favourites are chick nuts, fresh fruit, muesli bars, yoghurt, home-popped popcorn, etc etc. To that Melbourne diabetes expert who says that you can't expect people who are over their most healthy weight to keep off their weight losses because of hormonal hunger, I would say, if you're hungry, eat!! It's your body's wisdom. Btw, I'm maintaining my weight loss effortlessly with low GI & exercise (addicted to riding my bike) AND snacks!!