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.