How Often Should You Eat?

September 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

When and how often to eat is a hot topic in the fitness world, and you’ll hear everything from: eat 6 mini meals per day from the blood sugar experts, to 3 squares from the leptin camp, to no food but rather juices and broths from the latest  detox or cleanse programs. Who’s right? 

Remembering that hormones are an orchestra playing an elaborate symphony, it’s wise not to fall into the manage-this-hormone diet but rather keep all hormones is balance - as well as keeping your cravings and hunger at a manageable level. Since most of you out there are looking to drop fat, the 5-6 meals per day – aka eating every 3-4 hours - route is best.  This keeps blood sugar in a nice tight range and keeps your hunger and bay so you can stick to a plan.

The 2 main hormones you are controlling with a several smaller meals approach – although there are others like growth hormone and glucagon in the mix –  are insulin and cortisol.  These two hormones are in a constant tug of war to keep you blood sugar stable and your brain fed.

When you eat, insulin will rise and when you are between meals and sleeping cortisol will rise.  Insulin gets the fuel from a meal out of the bloodstream into your cells and cortisol taps into stored fuel so that you don’t have to constantly be putting food in your mouth. What you are hoping of course is that cortisol will tap into stored fat, in addition to stored sugar.

What type of fuel you burn largely depends on your unique hormonal situation.  If you are highly stressed you may be more catabolic and breaking down muscle over fat.  If you are insulin resistant you may have very high blood sugar after eating and a subsequent crash when you finally secrete enough insulin to get the job done. Getting your hormones tested will give you a better picture, but for most of you 5-6 meals a day or eating every 3-4 hours evens out most subtle hormonal imbalances.

It can be a challenge to get on a regular meal schedule, but it is crucial for success. If you don’t, you set yourself up to store more fat than you burn, and often end up ravenous with nothing but willpower to desperately hold yourself on plan.

Sound fun? Not so much. Fortunately, you can avoid it. It might be tough getting going, but once you get several days of perfectly timed meals under your belt, you’ll feel satisfied and in control of your hunger.      

Eating too frequently, and thus releasing insulin every 2 hours all day, can cause insulin resistance and an exaggerated insulin response that puts the breaks on your body’s ability to burn fat and enhances its ability to store it. What’s more, glucagon and growth hormone will not rise when blood sugar is elevated. That’s not good–just as we need fuel several times per day, we need times of low fuel as well. The trick is not to let the interval between meals get too long, which can cause an exaggerated cortisol (stress) response.

When you consider all of the metabolic hormones–those that lower blood sugar/blood fuel after a meal, those that raise blood sugar between meals, and those responsible for regulating hunger– that 3-4 hour window is optimal. This allows your body to better absorb, digest and utilize your last meal and allow your blood sugar to lower, but not by too much. It also helps your body build, or at least maintain, lean muscle mass as it breaks down fat. And if you listen to your body and stay on plan, you’re likely to feel hungry in about three hours anyway.

Simple Meal-Timing Tips

For most of you, eating every 3-4 hours looks like this: breakfast, midmorning snack, lunch, mid afternoon snack and dinner. On workout days, a post-workout recovery shake count as one of the snacks. 

Next, stop eating 2-3 hours before bedtime or at least 12 hours before breakfast. This is important, for several reasons. First, your liver needs to do its detox work, not digest dinner. Second, your blood sugar/blood fuel levels need to come down to stimulate normal leptin and growth hormone secretion. Finally, your body needs to “fast” during the evening to have a normal appetite and appropriate cortisol response in the morning.

While not eating too late works very well as a lean eating habit, it is among the hardest nutrition habits to stick to but it’s a habit worth trying to perfect as you’ll wake up more refreshed, less puffy and with a healthy appetite for breakfast.  If you aren’t able to sleep soundly or you wake up in the night, dipping blood sugar may be to blame and a protein based snack may be necessary for you (while you work with someone to heal your adrenals, of course) so that you can sleep through the night.  Remember sound sleep is also essential for fat loss.

Yet another tip: if you have insulin resistance moving towards a more uniform meal size can help avoid any large surges in insulin. This means every 3-4 hours you’ll eat a “small meal” rather than 3 larger meals and 2 smaller snacks.  If you’ve been sticking with a plan such as the one in Ultimate You and have hit a plateau, give this a try.

The Hunger Head Game

Many of us tend to overeat – and there are a lot of reasons why. One of them is a sort of crazy fear of getting hungry. I say crazy because we live in a world where food is readily accessible and true hunger or starvation is not a reality for most of us in the Western World. (Obviously this is not the case if you are homeless or living in a part of the world lacking a steady food supply, in these cases the concern is getting calories and nutrition in, rather than losing fat, as we’re discussing here.).

So if we know we can get our hands on food, we know with a bit of work we can even put our paws on a protein and veggie based meal or at least some nuts for healthy, satiating snack – why is it then that we overeat? It’s not a simple answer, but one behavior modification can be to put your veggies, protein and small serving of carbs on your plate; finish it up and simply remind yourself that you get to eat again in just a few short hours.

If it really freaks you out to go without a meal, do the Hunger Survival Experiment. Eat normally for your day and skip dinner – show yourself you can in fact survive that pang in your stomach and even the emotions, needs or fears that come up (this is a great time to journal and get to know yourself and your overeating triggers better). 

The point is to prove to yourself that you can survive cravings and hunger. It might not be the most fun thing you’ve ever done, but you can do it.  And the great news here is – you don’t have to. This is one experiment to do one day, and then you get to go back to a regular schedule of meals. Do not do this experiment if you have problems with low blood sugar or your adrenals, this is more appropriate for those who are insulin resistant.

Tips For Making the 3-4 Hour Rule Work

If you “graze” by picking at a meal for an hour or so or you’ve followed the “eat every two hours” advice and worry that you can’t go longer than that–or if you find yourself hungry, light headed, dizzy, or sleepy soon after you eat, ask yourself the following questions: At your last meal, did you… 

*eat enough protein?

*eat any foods that you know you are sensitive to or allergic to, such as wheat, diary, soy, or other known allergen?

*eat plenty of vegetables and fiber?

*eat not-so-healthy carbs? That is, were they low-fiber, simple carbs like bread, bagels, pasta, pastries or sugar?

Also ask yourself:

* Am I getting enough sleep?

*Am I drinking more than 1-2 cups of coffee per day?

*Are my adrenals weak or tired? Only a qualified health professional can tell you for sure. But if you’re under chronic stress, or have had trouble keeping your blood sugar up in the past, this may be the case. If it is, you don’t need to feed too frequently-you need to heal your stress response and utilize nutrients that keep blood sugar levels stable, such as chromium.

*Am I insulin resistant? 

Address these issues, and you won’t sacrifice one hormone imbalance for another.

Some of you may have the opposite issue: getting caught up in a busy day and either not making time or forgetting to eat. If this sounds like you, literally schedule your meal times into your day just like you would any other appointment. Set an alarm, ask your assistant or a co-worker to remind you, have snacks readily accessible–do whatever it takes and make yourself a priority.

No matter which camp you fall into, the old stand by Dr Brooke advice holds true: plan ahead.  Have protein choices cooked ahead of time, have cut up veggies prepped or purchased, have nuts or a high quality protein bar on hand, try ordering a snack as well when you order in breakfast or lunch, or get a larger meal and keep 1/3-1/2 of it for your next snack.

BETTER BODY Thoughts

Replace unhelpful – often harmful- thoughts with more empowering and productive ones:

I can’t stand being hungry.

BETTER: I can tolerate hunger, it isn’t as bad as (fill in the blank) and I get to eat in a bit anyway. 

I don’t have time to prep meals for myself.

BETTER: Winging it hasn’t worked for me in the past so I will make time to prep food for myself.

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