“Eat Every Three Hours”: Oh, Really?

On a recent blog I talked about a popular tactic advocated by many personal trainers called “The Cheat Day”. As I explained on last weeks blog, the “cheat day” is a “day off” from your weekly diet, a day on which you can eat anything you like.

Trainers who advocate this are clearly attempting to come up with a real-life weight-loss plan that works for their clients, and–as I pointed out last week– it may in fact work for some.

But it doesn’t for everyone.

Far from it.

Which got me thinking.

What other principles are being promoted out there that might have, shall we say, a less than perfect relationship with the truth?

As it turns out quite a few. And I’ll be visiting some of them in the coming months. But right now  I want to deal with one I’m sure you’ve heard a million times, because virtually every personal trainer says it, and every magazine quotes it, and just about everyone believes it.

All together now:  “Eat six small meals a day“.

OK, you say, you haven’t heard it said quite this way. But I’ll bet you’ve heard “eat three big meals and two snacks”. Or another variation, “eat every three hours”. Certainly sounds good doesn’t it? And so reasonable, too!

Trouble is, it’s just not true.

Or at least not always true. And it’s not true often enough to make it of very questionable value as a golden rule of dieting.

The “eat five (or six) small meals a day” concept came out of the same culture that the “cheat day” did- the bodybuilding culture of the 50’s. (In fact, many of the things we repeat as gospel today came out of that same culture- including the idea that you have to give each muscle group a couple of days off before training it again. But I digress.)

The theory of “six small meals” is based on the idea that your body actually uses some calories digesting food, and digestion is a metabolic process, so every time you eat a meal it theoretically “raises” your metabolism (which is pretty close to a magic talisman in the world of weight-loss). By eating small meals frequently, the thinking goes, you constantly keep your metabolism elevated.

Problem is that this is to metabolism and physiology what Dr. Phil is to psychological science.

Every time you eat a meal your blood sugar goes up and the pancreas responds with a shot of insulin. When people have absolutely normal metabolisms, with no issues around carbohydrate processing, the system works fine. But in people for whom blood sugar response to food- and even more important, insulin response to blood sugar– is kind of screwed up, eating frequently may actually work against you.

The constant elevation of blood sugar (and the subsequent raising of the fat storage hormone insulin) just about guarantees that your body will never have to reach into its stores of fat to find energy to burn since there’s a constant supply of glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream (thanks to that meal you ate a couple hours ago and are about to repeat).

Fact is– as many people can attest to from personal experience– it’s perfectly possible to do quite well on three squares a day.

Snacking isn’t necessary, and in some cases, may be counterproductive. For some people, keeping insulin low for most of the day sets up a favorable metabolic environment and may also keep cravings at bay.

And let’s not even talk about the fact that most people haven’t the slightest idea of what the “small” in “six small meals” refers to. Our sense of portion size has been so distorted by routine restaurant eating that many of us have come to classify a meal that would fill out the flat side of a Bosu ball as a “snack”.

The bottom line is this: If eating every three hours or so is working for you that’s great. If you really feel better on such a routine, by all means carry on.

But if you’re one of the many people who just don’t “get it”, and for whom frequent snacking (or the “grazing” way of eating) causes you to think about food all the time, produces cravings, and results in overeating, don’t beat yourself up. You may be one of the people for whom the mantra about eating “to keep your metabolism up” just isn’t true.

And if that’s so, don’t be afraid to go back to basics. Three definite meals, each with a beginning and an end, each nutritionally dense and filling.

And nothing in between.

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29 Comments

  1. Mark

    GREAT POST! Really good points- love your work

    Reply
    • Sandra Vaughan

      OMG!!!!! Thank you thank you thank you. I am bombarded with this eat small meal every two hours, blah blah and I just can’t get on board. As it is, I am an over eater, love a good meal. But I was willing to be wrong and try this NEW metabolism break thru. But in heart I knew it didn’t make perfect sense. And the snacking was confusing too. Any whooooo- Thank YOU!

      Reply
  2. Xenia

    Thanks for this great article, Dr. Jonny. And there are other reasons to support what you say. Constant grazing is for ruminants (cows etc.) and not for omnivores like us. In the past, Man did not eat even every day. After they caught an animal, the whole tribe feasted on it. Then they lay around for a few days to recover from overeating, and then the whole cycle started all over again. This means we are perfectly capable of eating one or two large meals per day provided that such meals do not raise insulin a lot (and fatty animal meat, organ meat and bone marrow luckily don’t). And cavemen were not fat – if they had been fat, they wouldn’t have lived to pass on their genes …

    That is why the recommendations about eating lots of small meals per day are utter nonsense.

    Secondly, eating too often disrupts the leptin/ghrelin balance and may lead to leptin resistance. Studies have shown that meals are best placed about 4-6 hours apart – or MORE. Yes, more. So this piece of information alone confirms the fact that we should only have 2-3 meals per day. Perhaps less but definitely not more. As the IF (Intermittent fasting) studies show so clearly, even having just one large meal per day notably improves all the important markers, from blood sugar to blood pressure, cholesterol, homocystein, CRP, triglycerides – you name it.

    Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, eating too often diminishes the optimal functioning of the immune system. As we know, 80 % of the immune system cells are located in our guts. Each time you ingest food, you sort of bring your environment right inside your body, and this environment could be harmful for us since food may – and indeed does – contain bacteria, viruses, parasites, poisons, carcinogens etc. So each ingestion of food means red alert state for the immune system. It has to concentrate on the food alone to protect you from its potential dangers and is therefore not able to take care of other matters for a while. If we eat too often it means that at all those occasions, its attention cannot be dedicated to the flu or cold that may be brewing in your body at that very moment, or even to some cancer cells that may have started dividing too rapidly …

    In other words, the less often you eat, the more chance you give your immune system to function properly. It is the reason why all animals instinctively go on a fast whenwcwe they are wounded or when they fall ill. We should look for our examples more often in the Nature because everything is there – if only we choose to see it.

    Reply
  3. desmond

    If each time one eats, the blood sugar spikes up and a diabetic is advised to keep blood sugar down, it does not make sense to eat five or six times no matter the portion size.

    Reply
  4. Irene

    Thank you so much for the excellent article! I can’t agree more with you. In my time, I developed an eating disorder simply by following this “six small meals” advice. It took me fifteen years to recover. I now firmly believe this “snack often” thing to be the most destructive piece of nutritional advice ever given. Never again!

    Thanks again for your excellent blog and site! I use your Shape Up book and workbook all the time — they are excellent tools.

    Reply
  5. Sarah

    Great article, Jonny! There sure is no one diet that is right for everyone! I think the grazing concept also came from the cravings that some people get from not eating often and therefore turn to bingeing. But again, as you said, that’s not everyone. And, as you said, it is tough to get people to understand what “small” is in a “small meal”.

    Reply
  6. Rok

    What about the fact that, especially for building muscle, you need more (a lot) of calories, so in this case it is practically impossible to consume all of the calories in just few meals … doesn`t such a case represent a kind of a necessity to spread those calories throughout the day (more meals)?

    Reply
  7. Ruslan

    Thanks for the great post Jonny.
    I also liked the previous post on ‘cheat days’. What gets me is the praise that the book is receiving which was written by an individual who has no ‘real world’ experience working with real people day in and day out.

    He’s gathered some data that may look sexy on paper, but may not mirror those same results in the trenches. Having a few ‘lab rat’ volunteers for the project doesn’t justify that the approach of the 4h body can be applied to those that have been battling obesity, emotional eating and are challenged on all biochemical levels.

    Jonny, what is your take on one of the most common recommendation given by some of the top nutritionist; consuming protein/fat and fiber rich meals more frequently through the day to combat hyperinsulinsm?

    Reply
  8. Melissa Meiselman

    Have you ever read, “The China Study”? I am following his described whole foods, low fat vegetarian diet and it is working very well for my health and weight loss.

    Reply
  9. Brenda

    I have always been annoyed by the idea of eating 6 times a day. Who has time for that anyway? How would that really work into someone’s schedule? Who wants to worry about what they are going to eat 6 times a day? Is that the way our healthier/thinner ancestors ate? I doubt it. I was glad to see this article come in……..thanks Jonny.

    Also I had started to read, but never finished, the book “Mastering Leptin”. If I remember correctly, this book states that part of solving the leptin resistance problem is eating three meals a day and “no” snacks. I believe it said eating to many times a day throws off the leptin hormone communications in the body.

    Since this is the only place I had read this I didn’t know if it was true or just another diet gimmick. I have been diagnosed as leptin resistant but am not sure what to do about it. Jonny, if you have not written an article on this subject……..it would be a topic of interest to me. Thanks Jonny!!

    Reply
  10. Janet Black

    It is also inconvenient to eat 6 times a day. And some people eat too much if they are having 6 meals/day. If I get hungry between meals, I will have a snack but otherwise, I don’t bother.

    Reply
  11. Willie

    Well done Jonny, it’s another reminder that one size does not fit all – Biochemical Individuality strikes again.

    Reply
  12. Karen

    Interesting article. I am pre diabetic, watching my blood sugars but not on meds. I am eating a lower carb regimen. mostly from veggies, and occasionally a high fiber tortilla instead of bread.
    I was losing over christmas, eating this way and 3 meals and 3 snacks inbetween. then sugar got ahold of me over christmas and trying to lose after chrismtas wasn’t working. I went back on the every 3 hours program and started losing again. It keeps me satisfied, I don’t have cravings, and my biggest meal isn’t over 8 oz of weight. I try to make good choices. I feel pretty good.

    my 2 daughters are keeping their extra lbs off by eating a snack also. one I think is hypoglycemic, possibly both are. thhe feel much better when eating a snack between thier meals, and their meals themselves are not huge. she eats only small amounts of sugar, gluten, corn, wheat and she feels pretty good.

    Reply
  13. Brian

    For years I have been telling clients to feed their metabolism, usually by increasing their protein to even just the 1 g per kilo bodyweight. It works some of the time, but not always. I certainly believe the comment on snacking size is a huge issue, so it makes sense to just cut it out! More research, and more support before I completely change my company’s entire message. Really enjoyed the post though!

    Reply
  14. Steve

    Hey Dr. Jonny,

    I enjoyed reading your perspective on this commonly held fitness industry belief.

    When I was involved in the fitness industry industry many years ago, people would see me to find out how they can lose weight effectively. Of course when I would ask them about their nutritional habits, many people would say that they only had 1 or 2 meals a day (this was one reason why they were overweight in the first place!).

    In these cases the person’s metabolism was obviously quite slow. Therefore, it simply doesn’t make sense for them to go from 1-2 meals a day to 5-6 meals a day; the increase in meal frequency is too much and even though they will only have small meals, it is still probably too many calories and they will likely put on weight by following that approach. Of copurse, they needed to be very aware of their correct portion sizes if they intended to follow these recomendations.

    However, if someone is exercising I do think it is something they should work towards over a period of time. For example, I would suggest they start by having 3 small meals a day and do this for a period of 4-6 weeks while their metabolism gradually sped up (from the exercise not the increased meal frequency). Then, I would have them monitor their appetite and when they would start to feel hungry we would have them to increase their meal frequency to 4 small meals a day. They would then do this for perhaps another 4-6 weeks. Finally, as they started feeling hungry again we would have them increase their meal frequency to 5 or 6 small meals a day.

    I found that if they did this correctly, during this whole process they would be losing weight, which would help to keep them motivated and even after they get to the point of having 5 or 6 small meals a day some people may still feel hungry so we would then start increasing their meal portion sizes! Even though they started eating more food/ calories overall, because their metabolism was now quite fast, they did not put on any weight!

    Furthermore, the meals they have should all be controlled when it comes to overall carbohydrates (in order to minimise the insulin response) and should have a balanced macronutrient profile (contain carbohydrate, protein and fat).

    Overall, whilst 5-6 small meals a day is a great goal to aim for, it may not be suitable for everyone and should be carefully planned.

    Reply
  15. John Wells

    Hi Dr. J
    If you are going by the 1gr. protein per lb. of lean body weight for heavy lifting,that would be 53 gr. per meal for me,for 3 meals.
    Can a healthy body effectively absorb and utilize that amount?
    Thanks,
    John

    Reply
  16. Dana

    Great post Jonny. It’s something I’ve been saying to my clients for years and it’s nice to have someone else back it up.

    Reply
  17. john wells

    Can one absorb and utilize a high protein intake with just 3 meals a day?

    Reply
  18. john wells

    Sorry if I double post.I’m in an Asian internet cafe and sometimes these post don’t show regestered

    Reply
  19. Lisa Smith

    I have been debunking this idea with my weight loss clients for many years.
    And besides, most people have a hard time planning and taking time for 3 MEALS a day, let alone 5 or 6! Who can realistically do that in these busy times?!

    Reply
  20. Stephane

    Great article!

    I was definitely a strength and conditioning coach that highly advocated the 6 meals per day approach. In the recent past I came across a few great coaches that advocated 3 meals daily to take advantage of intermittent fasting.

    The results have been great!

    Reply
  21. Colleen

    Great commentary. I’m constantly telling my clients exactly what you’ve said. You’re spot on. Thank you!

    Reply
  22. Kathleen

    For me, 5 small meals a day works well and has for many years. But that’s because I want that constant influx of protein to fuel muscle growth. (I do a bodybuilding-style workout 4 days a week.) It also gives me 2 more opportunities during the day to get in healthy nutrients, and it cuts down the size of my other 3 meals–a good thing.

    At 55, I feel strongly that putting on muscle (or at least keeping it on your body) is critical to combat the tendency toward frailty that typically comes with advancing years. I don’t intend to lose muscle OR bone.

    I don’t eat after dinner (the tough part) and consider this my daily “fast,” from 6 PM to 6 AM.

    This works for ME. Everyone’s needs are different, no doubt.

    Reply
  23. Kristin

    This is completely wrong, insulin is NOT released everytime you eat something. Insulin’s function is to facilitate the removal and storage of *excess* glucose because there is more in the bloodstream than can be used by the body and to protect the brain from blood sugar that is too high. (The brain has a compartively narrow range of blood sugar where it is happy, too low and too high are both dangerous for it ultimately) When your blood sugar rises above a certain pre-set point then insulin is released. So if your blood sugar is low, and you eat *more* than is needed to get it back in the normal range again, the pancreas- even in healthy people- will release enough insulin to store the *whole meal*, not just the amount that’s too high. This is the well known Chinese food effect- that when you eat food that that raises your blood sugar high, you feel hungry soon after eating it, because a bunch of insulin just got released, stored your whole meal and your blood sugar plummeted. By eating *small* frequent meals, you stand a better chance of preventing spikes in blood sugar, or high levels of blood sugar, that lead to simultaneous fat storage and hunger leading to binge eating…..
    Of course the goal for diabetics is to keep a *stable* blood sugar since they are often injecting themselves with insulin in response to blood sugar, spikes are dangerous.

    Reply
  24. anonymous55

    Eating every 3 hours works but the problem is WHAT to eat. The body needs 15 grams of protein every 3 hours. People who snack on a cookie or even fruits & veggies every 3 hours will not lose weight. So avoiding sugar and significantly limiting carbs plus consuming 6 lean protein portions will work for most healthy people.

    Reply
  25. Jacqueline

    Eating every 2-3 hours works for me. You said that people eat this way to keep their metabolism elevated… I never thought of it that way. I have always thought of it as a way to keep me satisfied through the day. If I wait to eat, my hunger will increase and it’s all I can think about. When I finally do get around to eating, I will binge eat on anything I can find and ignore my “feeling full” receptors. Also, eating five to six small meals a day does need to be explained more thoroughly and so does what a “snack” is and what a good size “meal” is. As well as what to eat as a snack and what to eat as a meal. Our views about food and portion size are all out of whack – you’re right about that.

    Reply
  26. Sarah

    It worked like a miracle for me. I was doing low carb for years and could not lose an ounce anymore. As soon as I reintroduced reasonable amounts of carbs and ate every 3 hours five times a day, I almost immediately dropped 4 sizes. I am one size away from my goal and am sure I will get there. All of my blood sugar issues disappeared as well. I can eat almost anything now and not gain back an ounce as long as I eat five times a day.

    Reply

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