Fog Horn Alert Volume 2: Meal Frequency

Doesn’t it burn your biscuits when someone says that you absolutely have to do something without taking into consideration anything about the most important factor in the process: you? I know that it really gets under my skin, especially when not much outside of these few things matter in terms of looking good buck nekkid.

1. Eat at a calorie level that is in line with my goals.
2. Get enough protein to prevent significant muscle loss.
3. Train in a way that helps maintain/build muscle mass.

To quote the great American hero Morgan Freeman, aside from this, all I have to do is be black and die, and even those two are debatable!

But this is exactly how many people are being treated. Even in some instances where they’re paying someone a good amount of money to help them get into the best shape of their lives, all they’re getting in return is a bunch of nonsensical statements that are regarded as truth simply because they’ve been repeated often enough. Not only does this do the person they’re trying to help a disservice, but it gives the preacher of said gospel the impression that they know it all and thus no further investigation is needed.

This has to stop.

One of these often recycled “truths” is that of increase meal frequency. More specifically, folks are often told that they need to eat small meals every few hours, usually to the tune of 5-6 meals or more per day, in order to maximize fat loss. This rubs me the wrong way, mainly because I have personal experience with this myth that was downright debilitating.

As I pointed out in this post, back in college I used to be THE MAN at eating frequently throughout the day. If you earned a living by following me around and reporting back every time I missed one of those sacred meals, then you would be homeless because that just wasn’t how I rolled back then. I always sat in the back of the room in classroom so that I could maximize the space I needed for my friends – Mr. Tub of chicken and Mrs. Contain of broccoli.

I was getting leaner, but it came at a cost. If I wasn’t eating, I was thinking about when I had to eat next. If I wasn’t worrying about that, I was busy prepping food for the next day, or figuring out where I could store my food on campus. To put it mildly, I was living to eat and not eating to live. It was putting a cramp on my social life and I eventually hit a point where if this is what I had to do to look good, then it simply wasn’t worth the trouble anymore.

Then I went AWOL. Off the reservation. Off the grid. Rogue.

It was as if damns became the world’s rarest commodities, because I just couldn’t give one anymore. Overnight I stopped obsessing over how many meals I ate and when I ate them. The stress became too much and I had mentally prepared myself to let the pounds start packing themselves back on at the speed of light.

But then something amazing happened: I not only stayed lean, but I got leaner.

Was it divine intervention? Did I accidentally drink some of that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle ooze? Or was it the fact that meal frequency wasn’t the determining factor at all? I’m sure it was a little bit of ooze, but mainly a whole lot of the latter.

I don’t want to focus on the science of things today, because while I read and understand it, I want to speak to practicality and application more than anything else, because that’s the world we live in.

1. It fails to take the individual into account

Meal frequency is a completely individual issue, but when generic, blanket statements like eating every 2-3 hours/5-6+ meals a day are given, they take the power out of the individuals hands, and, if you’ve been reading this site at all, you know that homie don’t play that! What may work for a 230lb bodybuilder trying to put on a significant amount of muscle wouldn’t be appropriate for 130lb woman looking to lose bodyfat.

I also find it backwards that the standard advice given to overweight people who have physiological and psychological issues with controlling their food take that the answer to the problem is to not to eat less, but to eat more.

2. It makes failure inevitable

By nature of the fact that it removes the individual from the equation, if success is achieved at all then it is usually only by dogged determination and an unwillingness to give up. None of these are bad qualities, but with the stress and issues that people have to deal on a daily basis, their dietary success shouldn’t and doesn’t have to require so much mental and physical suffering.

It comes as no surprise to me when I hear of people falling short of the “ideal” meal frequency and, because of it, feeling like let down and defeated, which often leads to nonconstructive dietary discretion (I.E. eating a bunch of food they wouldn’t have otherwise eaten). That mindset doesn’t really make sense, but it is a reality for some thing. It’s similar this scenario: if I can’t workout 6 days a week like my personal trainer told me to, I might as well not work out at all.

With the odds stacked against us, failure and disappointment usually aren’t too far behind, but and that’s just not how it should be.

Here is the take away point: Experiment. Find what works for YOU

If you like eating 6 meals a day and it works for you, dont you dare change a thing.

If you like eating one meal a day because it lets you cut loose like a dietary beast and it works for you, don’t you dare change a thing.

But if you’re constantly falling short in your quest to get from where you are to where you want to be because you can’t follow some predetermined route, then abandon the map – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from it.

The diet that you can stick to in the long term is the most effective one; think of it as the bed frame and the mattress of your life. Anything beyond that is simply details; the precious looking pillow covers and 9,000 thread count comforters – nice to have, but not necessary for a good nights sleep.

What’ve been your experiences with meal frequency? How has it shaped your beliefs about eating? I’d love to hear it below in the comment section. Also, if you liked this post please use the buttons below to share it with your friends – I hear this dogma preached far too often these days, often to the detriment of the people they’re trying to help.

Photo Credit: Remy_Free

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  1. Chris Brown says

    Haha, Rog I remember back in my university days something similar: ONce I got into all this training and gaining mass stuff, I would schedule my classes around my eating schedule — sometimes this was easy…other times I had to put in some detective work.

    • says

      Damnit, you’ve got me beat on this one! Blender carrying has nothing on on meal timing life design.

      But when it really comes down to it, what’s more important: getting that there meal in on time or registering for that class that’s offered once a year that you need to graduate?

      Answer: The chicken wins out every time!

  2. says

    This, in particular, is exactly the issue I have with the whole “5-6 meals a day” business:
    “I also find it backwards that the standard advice given to overweight people who have physiological and psychological issues with controlling their food take that the answer to the problem is to not to eat less, but to eat more.”

    In an effort to lose weight, I started eating when I wasn’t hungry and obsessing over food, macros, etc. My scale results suffered, and it definitely didn’t help with my emotional eating issues! I’ve had much better results since I started eating when I’m actually hungry and at times that feel natural to me.

    • says

      Great realization, Bonnie. You found what works for you and now that you are more than a week into the YEAR OF THE BEAST, success is no longer an option, but mandatory!

  3. Pete says

    I tried the meal frequency thing as well in college and drove me insane and often fell off any semblence of diet.

    Now I just aim for target protein and calories while eating mostly nutrionally rich foods, then catch up or cut back as needed depending on how a day is going. Sandwich the workouts with chocolate milk and track the rest on MyPlate.

    Much more pleasant eating to live than overthinking eating. Allows for more scheduled sleep too!

    • says

      Great stuff, Peter. It’s amazing how only after you make the switch to something more reasonable that you realize how insane what you were doing before usually was.

  4. says

    I like two meals. Partly as a personal preference, because I don’t need to eat more often than that. And now that I’m losing weight again, I want to eat around 1400 or 1500 calories a day, so that would be two 700-750 calorie meals per day, which is very doable.

      • says

        Yeah, I like the feeling of having an actual meal, not just snacks. I’ve also learned to eat slowly, so it can take me 20-25 minutes or more to eat. So it feels like a meal. Today I had an apple, Greek yogurt mixed with cereal and roasted soybeans, a Larabar, and two slices of bread (delicious, homemade-style) with honey nut cream cheese. 650 calories. I don’t see any reason why I can’t continue to eat this way for as long as I need to.

        • Cherie says

          You reminded me of a homework assignment I had in Yoga class:

          “Guidelines for Yogic Eating”

          Take no more than two fist-sized portions of food at a time. If you finish and are still hungry, wait five minutes. If still hungry after five minutes of waiting, take another fist-size portion.

          Take one bite of food, put down fork/spoon, chew food, swallow, then pick up next bite.

          No reading, watching t.v., music, sitting in front of computer, etc. while eating. Conversation allowed, but no talking with mouth full.

          Let food digest between meals. This means you will be HUNGRY in-between meals. Fruits/Veggies digest quickly ~ 45minutes. So if you need to eat often, eat light foods. A big steak dinner might take 18 hours to digest.

          Try to get family/friends to try this with you and then get feedback.

  5. Nancy C. says

    I think the whole meal frequency thing is overrated. Meal timing, maybe, but frequency just doesn’t make sense. The main thing is deficit, maintenance or surplus and if you’re hitting those numbers, how often you eat should be a personal thing. For me, I’ve always felt best on five meals a days. I definitely need to eat soon after waking so the whole IF thing doesn’t work for me. I wish it did because it sounds like it would be really helpful when the calories get real low.

    Good post, Roger!

    • says

      Thanks Nancy. I have no problem with 5 meals a day – as long as the person has come to the conclusion that it’s what works best for them. Only when it’s forced upon people do I roll up my sleeves to reveal my ridiculously large forearms of destruction that will block out of the sun and spell doom for all who utter such nonsense!

  6. Kendra says

    Amen to this! Your style is refreshing and right up my alley. I am aiming for intuitive eating… eat when my body tells me I am hungry, and eat what my body tells me it wants. I just started so I don’t know if I am losing, but it takes my mind off food, so I can focus on fitness, which is the bigger mind game!

    • says

      Yes indeedy feed the needy! Eating when you’re hungry and getting back in touch with what real hunger actually feels like as opposed to “emotional” hunger is crucial, otherwise you’ll run for food at every slight stomach gurgle.

    • Cherie says

      I learned that if you think you’re hungry, you should drink a full glass of water first and wait 10 minutes. Normally people think they’re hungry when they’re actually dehydrated. If you’re still hungry 10 minutes after drinking that glass of water, then it’s food time; if not, then you were just dehydrated.

  7. Kujo says

    Like I mentioned in one of your other post, I’ve switched to IF (been on it for almost 12 weeks now), and now only eat 2-3 meals a day. Honestly, I can’t see myself ever going back to any other way. I’m dieting, and it doesn’t even feel like it. That 1 huge meal a day is glorious.

  8. Cherie says

    FINALLY!! Something that makes sense! I get so much grief for not eating 3 squares every day and always skipping breakfast. People look at me like I’m crazy when I say that if I eat breakfast I spend the rest of the morning feeling like there’s a rock in my stomach. The closest I can get to breakfast is brunch-fast, and usually it’s pretty light: A protein shake, yogurt, oatmeal, something along those lines. I will generally have one decently sized meal and kind of a slightly-larger-than-snack-sized snack over the course of the day, and that’s usually all I need to function at a pretty good level. But 3 meals consistently every day is a big fat NO for me. I lead a fairly sedentary life and eating that much has just turned me into a tubby, so I’m going back to what worked for me. Like someone said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

  9. says

    I think that 5-6 meals per day can work if someone really likes it. The issue is that more meals often = more food consumed overall. I’ve had some weight loss clients who come to me heavier than they were when they were eating 3 squares. And while IF and lower meal frequency can work too, it really comes down to what’s best for the user. If one can’t stick with something then nothing is going to work.

  10. says

    I used to do the 5-6 meals a day thing because that is just what you did, right? Got to keep that metabolism stoked right? Now I’m more of a 3 meal, one small snack a day type person. I found that letting go of these notions of meal timing allowed me to figure out when I was actually hungry and eat accordingly. Learning my own fullness cues has been a huge factor in my weight loss success this time around. Everyone has to do what works for them!

    • says

      So true Keyalus. We’ve got a pretty good built in system to let us know when enough is enough, but the problem is that we’ve gotten so far out of touch with how that system operates.


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