Recently by Mark Sisson: How Much Is Too Much?
The issue of meal timing is a dense thicket of conflicting advice, a mix of conventional wisdom dispensed from USA Today articles, broscience on Internet forums, and confusing physiological feedback from a dysfunctional metabolism. How can one wade through it all and stay sane? You’ve been told your entire life that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but then you hear about intermittent fasting, Warrior Diets, and skipping breakfast while thriving. The buff/cut/shredded/ripped/insert-increasingly-violent-adjective-to-describe-one’s-leanness-here (what’s next, “flayed”?) dudes at the gym insist you should break up your eating into at least six small meals (and if possible, maintain a steady IV-drip of Muscle Milk throughout the day) to “boost” your metabolism. Some say three meals a day works just as well, while others say it’s even superior. Others try to simplify things. They suggest listening to your own body, to eat when hungry and fast when not, which makes sense, but what if you’re overweight and hungry all the time — can your body’s metabolic signaling really be trusted?
These are common concerns. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I think I can make navigating the meal timing issue a little easier for people. Let’s go through a couple of the most common questions and explore what might work. I think you’ll find that context is key.
To Eat Breakfast, or Not
It’s true that epidemiology shows habitual breakfast skippers trend toward being fatter and less healthy than traditional breakfasters. People who skip breakfast are more likely to be dieters (meaning they’re overweight) and lead generally unhealthy lifestyles (since skipping breakfast is widely seen as unhealthy, they’re more likely to engage in other unhealthy activities).
Is this true for you, though? Are you technically skipping breakfast, only to grab a Frappucino on the way to work and eat a couple stale donuts in your office at 10 AM? Are you skipping breakfast intuitively, simply because you’re not hungry? Or are you skipping breakfast while mustering up all the willpower you have and ignoring your body’s cries for sustenance? These are two very different physiological states. I’d argue that the intuitive breakfast skipper is not skipping breakfast at all. Instead, he (or she) is in tune with his body. He’s still breaking his fast, just at a later time. The tortured breakfast skipper is fighting against his own satiety hormones, a battle he cannot win over the long haul. He’s living in perpetual metabolic discord. What do you think he’s more likely to eat for lunch — a Big Ass Salad whose contents he lovingly and thoughtfully prepared the night before, or a Big Mac combo?
If you’re of the former category and a traditionally-timed breakfast simply never occurs to you, you’re fine. Stick with it and eat when you get hungry, especially if your fat-loss efforts are succeeding.
Others might want to eat a protein-rich breakfast. Overweight teens who habitually skipped breakfast ate either a high-protein breakfast (50 grams protein) or a breakfast with normal amounts of protein (18 grams) for seven days. Three hours after their last breakfast on the seventh day, researchers measured the teens’ neural responses to pictures of food. The high-protein group displayed the least amount of activity in areas of the brain associated with food reward. According to brain imaging scans, the high-protein group was more sated and less interested in the idea of food than the low-protein group. Of course, the usual caveats apply here: these overweight teens were not skipping breakfast so they could do their afternoon squat session fasted, they probably weren’t interested in fasting-induced cellular autophagy, and I doubt they skipped breakfast spontaneously because they were happily humming along on stored body fat energy. In short, they are a specific demographic whose results may not apply to you. But if you’re the type who’s tried to skip breakfast and failed miserably — or did it and felt miserable and ravenous — you might try eating a high-protein breakfast. Add some fat to that protein and I bet you could maintain satiation for longer than the three hours described in the study.
Many Small Meals vs. Few Large Meals
To graze or to feast? According to many fitness “experts,” grazing is supposed to “stoke the metabolic fire,” while infrequent meals “slow your metabolism.” The idea is that eating many small meals keeps your metabolism plugging away at a high rate for the entire day, helping you burn more fat. Conversely, going too long between meals slows down your metabolism, so that when you do eat, your body is sluggish to respond to the caloric load and you end up storing it as fat.
It’s a neat-sounding theory, but it isn’t true.
First of all, there is no metabolic advantage to eating multiple meals. Yeah, your body expends metabolic energy to process and digest food, but it doesn’t matter when or how it’s eaten. You could eat a steak in a single sitting or the same steak cut up into five pieces, each eaten an hour apart, and the total energy expenditure required to process and digest the steak would be identical in both cases. So, assuming macronutrient ratios and caloric content are identical, eating more frequently doesn’t make your metabolism “burn” brighter. If it did, this study would have ruled in favor of increased meal frequency as an effective tool in weight loss for obese patients. But it didn’t.