Q: Is it really necessary to eat five meals a day? I work long hours and find it difficult to eat so frequently.
“Necessary” might be stretching things a bit, but from a body composition standpoint, it’s certainly beneficial to consume small, frequent meals throughout the day. Both anecdotal evidence and scientific research have shown that people who consume five meals a day are able to stay leaner than those who consume only three. Here’s why.
First, when you go without eating for more than a few hours, your body senses deprivation and shifts into a “starvation mode.” Part of the starvation response is to decrease resting energy expenditure. In effect, the body slows down its metabolic rate to conserve energy. This is accomplished primarily by decreasing the action of the active form of the thyroid hormone T3. As a rule, the longer the period between meals, the greater the decrease in T3 production.
In addition, reduced meal frequency has a negative effect on insulin levels. This causes insulin spikes, which switch on various mechanisms that increase fat storage. The spikes then lead to a crash, resulting in a tendency toward hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hunger pangs ensue and you invariably end up eating more than you otherwise would, often in the form of refined sweets. This sets up a vicious cycle of overeating and rampant insulin secretions – a surefire path to unwanted weight gain.
Compounding matters, the absence of food causes the stomach to secrete a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is referred to as the “hunger hormone.” It exerts its effects by slowing down fat utilization and increasing appetite. Without consistent food consumption, ghrelin levels remain elevated for extended periods of time, increasing the urge to eat.
Frequent meals counteract these negative effects. Blood sugar is better regulated and, because there’s an almost constant flow of food into the stomach, the hunger-inducing effects of ghrelin are suppressed, reducing the urge to binge out.
What’s more, frequent meals help in preserving muscle. During periods of caloric restriction, the body catabolizes muscle protein and converts it into glucose for use as an energy source. By increasing meal frequency, you attenuate the rate of muscle tissue breakdown. This allows you to maintain more lean body mass and thereby keep metabolism elevated.
Granted, it’s a bit of a chore to eat more frequently, but there are ways to make the task less onerous. One strategy is to prepare several meals in advance, store them in Tupperware, and reheat them in a microwave on an as-needed basis. This allows you to consolidate preparation, thereby heightening efficiency. Another alternative is to supplement your basic meals with powdered meal replacements (MRPs). MRPs are “engineered foods” that provide the ultimate in convenience: they’re nutritionally balanced, easily transportable and can be prepared in a matter of minutes. Over the long term, these factors make them an excellent aid in the pursuit of lasting weight management. And the benefits of MRPs have been borne out in research – numerous studies have shown that fat-loss programs using MRPs are significantly more successful than those that don’t.
You can also opt for one of the many MRP bars on the market. These bars come in a wide array of different flavors and are often quite tasty (although taste is very subjective!). Be careful, however, about which bars you choose. Some products are nothing more than glorified candy bars with some added protein, high quantities of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and/or saturated fat (and even trans fats). Make sure to check the ingredients before you buy and avoid bars that contain additives with buzzwords such as “corn syrup” and “partially hydrogenated,” especially if they’re listed as one of the first five ingredients.