Every once in a while I get a call from my friend in a panic: “Do you want to go out for dinner? I haven’t eaten all day and I need food NOW.” This always strikes me as odd—if not alarming—since she’s hypoglycemic, but I join her for her usual restaurant pick: Italian food.
By the time we’re served it’s usually after 8pm and I wonder how she is still breathing. She starts her day at 5am, eats a quick breakfast, and then it’s go time. She’s in charge of a superhuman workload at her full-time job, and then she races to her moonlighting gig where she’s with clients back-to-back until evening.
This means she hasn’t eaten since morning. When the clock strikes 7pm, she is frantic for a hearty meal and doesn’t have the time (or brain power) to fix something healthy at home.
My friend is drop-dead gorgeous, but I know that she wants to lose 20 pounds, and her eating habits aren’t helping. In fact, they are most definitely the problem.
Meal frequency seems to be one of the most misunderstood components of weight loss. Sometimes people skip meals because they have maxed-out schedules; other times they just don’t get hungry. In all cases, they probably think fewer meals will at least give them a calorie-cutting weight loss bonus.
And in all cases, this would be wrong.
Fewer Meals = Big Evening Meal
Since absolutely no one I know eats breakfast like a king and dinner like a pauper, I’m going to assume most people fall into the calorie-heavy-dinner category. But unless you plan to wrap a royal robe around that swimsuit this summer, you might want to reconsider having the royal feast at dinner time.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the timing of meals affects weight loss, and those who consume the bulk of their calories later in the day have a harder time losing weight.
For one, the body is adaptable—when we starve it, it responds by lowering the rate at which we metabolize energy. So eating sparsely before dinner means by the time we dig in, our metabolism has slowed way down.
Add to this the fact that we’re loading up on calories right as our activity level drops, and you have a recipe for hitting the hay with a very heavy stomach. (Alas, tonight’s caloric feast is unlikely to be burned up *retroactively* by this morning’s workout.)
Fewer Meals = Cravings and Overeating
Another reason big gaps between meals are bad? Waiting too long to eat steers many a growling stomach to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Studies show that hunger leads to poor decision making, and what’s worse, people actually crave junk food when they’re starving.
Hungry eaters can also kiss portion control good-bye. Just like dieting can lead to binging, going hungry for too long can put us in speed-eating mode, desperate to fill our empty stomachs as soon as possible… and suddenly, half the pan of enchiladas has gone missing.
Staying satisfied throughout the day is an easy way to keep metabolism revved and avoid diet sabotage. The best way to distribute calories isn’t the standard 3 meals a day, however. While that’s certainly better than 1-2 meals, IdealShape has found that 5 small, healthy meals a day is ideal for weight loss. That’s because it delivers the optimum energy balance and makes it easy to get the bulk of your calories earlier in the day.
Eating Habits Die Hard
Eating 5 meals a day does require some planning (as in, throw a few meal replacement bars in your bag).
When it comes to weight loss, we can be like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a psychologist observes: we forget all about “weight loss mode” as soon as we’re in “routine mode.”
In the face of cultural norms which push for scant breakfasts and three-course dinners—not to mention the strange case of you forgetting all about your goals while in “routine mode”—practice makes perfect.