Wait, you say... eat five times per day? What happened to eating 3 square meals? The idea of eating 5-6 small meals per day has been in vogue for the past few years. Proponents of this method believe that spreading your calories throughout the day into smaller meals helps rev up metabolism, prevent energy reserves from running low, and prevent your body from burning up muscle for fuel. It also keeps blood sugar levels steady due to a steady supply of energy. Let's examine the pros and cons of eating this way and see why it can help you achieve health and fitness goals.
Athletes, bodybuilders and fitness experts are able to manipulate calories, nutrients and exercise in a way that yields maximum results for their effort. They know from experience that eating frequent small meals helps provide enough sustained energy to get through their rigorous workouts. And they know that the best way to build new muscle and preserve the muscle they already have is to keep a steady supply of amino acids available in their bloodstreams through ingesting small meals containing adequate protein. They rarely let more than 2-3 hours go by before they are supplying their bodies with the next balanced and nutritious load of calories which includes protein, carbs and healthy fats. What does that mean for the rest of us? It means that we can learn a thing or two about timing our meals/snacks in order to achieve similar positive outcomes.
The average person can only utilize a limited number of calories per meal. If you eat more calories than your body needs at the moment, the excess gets stored as fat. Let's look at this example. Suppose you are an active woman who requires 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight. The average woman can utilize somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 to 500 calories per meal. If you divide the 2,000 calories into 3 square meals, that comes out to approximately 700 calories per meal. Assuming your body can only utilize 400 calories of energy per meal, the extra 300 calories eaten has nowhere to go except stored in your fat cells for later use. So while you are not overeating in terms of total daily calories, you are not supplying energy in an optimal way for your body. Now, assume like many busy women you skip breakfast altogether and only eat lunch and dinner, that comes out to 1,000 calories eaten per meal. This is approximately 600 calories more per meal than your body can handle at any one time. Guess what happens to those extra calories?
Take the same 2,000 calories and spread it out over 5 meals, and this comes out to 400 calories per meal which is just about perfect for energy utilization. Divide it by 6 meals and now you are down to approximately 350 calories per meal. Remember that it takes about 2-3 hours for your stomach to empty, so if you are refueling with the perfect amount of calories at regular intervals your metabolism begins to operate in a much more efficient manner. When you begin to eat 5-6 times per day, you can see that there really isn't room for large, super-size meals. Each meal becomes a smaller, nutritionally balanced choice that satisfies energy demands and isn't driven by cravings and low blood sugar levels.
Does that mean you can never go out to a restaurant and order a big meal again? Of course not, but that should be the exception and not the rule. Follow the 90/10 rule: if you are eating correctly and optimally 90% of the time, you can afford to go off plan and splurge a little 10% of the time. Perhaps that means one "splurge" dinner out per week instead of three or four.
The hardest part about eating 5-6 times per day is planning the meals in advance and then sticking to that plan. It requires some forethought about calories per meal and redefining in our minds what constitutes a "meal". Suddenly, a can of tuna mixed with pickle relish, a few whole grain crackers and a piece of fruit makes a perfect, filling lunch when it is surrounded hours before or after with a balanced snack. You may find it very helpful to go back to Week 10 of our Healthy Tips and calculate just how many calories you should be eating in a day. If you truly want to improve your physique, build new muscle, and improve energy levels, dividing those calories into 5-6 meals per day is one of the best ways to get there.
“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligent an art.”
~ Francois La Rochefoucauld
Photo courtesy of Sura Nualpradid