Nearly 25 years ago, SpouseMouse and I had occasion to travel to the US.

We were watching television when an advert came on announcing:

Americans eat five meals a day.

SpouseMouse’s mouth dropped open: ‘Five meals a day? No wonder they’re so fat.’

This year, we had dinner with a delightful American couple. SpouseMouse related this anecdote. The wife said:

Five meals? It’s seven or eight these days.

It was another jaw-dropping moment for both of us. The woman continued:

You have to eat frequently during the day.

As she was our guest, we were not going to argue. However, she was clearly overweight. We concluded later that she eats too often, consuming too many calories.

The body — less is more

Martin Berkhan, the author of Leangains, is a nutritional consultant and personal trainer.

His ‘Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked’ is an interesting post. Berkhan, incidentally, is a fan of intermittent fasting, which goes against current thinking, but can help stimulate metabolism. Intermittent fasting involves eating one or two meals a day.

Highlights follow.

Thermic effect of food

The thermic effect of food (TEF), where

[t]he amount of energy expended is directly proportional to the amount of calories and nutrients consumed in the meal

is the central point around which ‘grazing’ — consuming frequent daily meals — revolves.

Yet, Berkhan tells us that a traditional three-squares-a-day regime:

yields a larger and long lasting boost in metabolic rate.

Nine meals (!) with the same numbers of calories and nutrients would result in:

a very weak but consistent boost in metabolic rate.

Six meals would be somewhere in between the two.

He says that smaller, more frequent meals do not ‘stoke the metabolic fire’ (emphases mine):

There’s a saying that goes “correlation does not imply causation” and this warrants further explanation since it explains many other dietary myths and fallacies. Just because there’s a connection between low meal frequencies and higher body weights, doesn’t mean that low meal frequencies cause weight gain

The connection between lower meal frequency and higher body weight in the general population, and vice versa, is connected to behavioral patterns – not metabolism.

A body of current research also indicates:

superior appetite control when eating fewer and larger meals.

Blood sugar

Blood sugar levels are another reason Westerners use in support of several meals a day. Yet:

blood sugar is extremely well-regulated and maintained within a tight range in healthy people. It does not swing wildly up and down like a chimpanzee on meth and it doesn’t plummet from going a few hours without food. Or even a full day without food. Or a week without food for that matter.

Yet, most of us have experienced short periods of time — late morning and mid-afternoon — when we feel sluggish or cranky until we have a small snack. Berkhan says that has more to do with what we normally eat than with actual low blood sugar. In fact:

Low just means lower range. This is subject to numerous confounders, such as your habitual diet, energy intake and genetics. Most importantly perhaps, it’s subject to entrained meal patterns, regulated by ghrelin and other metabolic hormones. In essence, this means that blood sugar follows the meal pattern you are used to. This is relevant for those who fear blood sugar issues and hunger from regular periods of fasting, as it serves to explain why people can easily adapt to regular periods of fasting without negative effects …

There’s no need to eat regularly to “maintain” blood sugar as it maintains itself just fine and adapts to whatever meal pattern you choose.

If you feel sluggish or cranky, have a small bite to eat until your next proper meal. Look at what you normally eat. Carbohydrate-laden food will cause the lower blood sugar effect. Substitute fats for carbs — cream cheese on carrot sticks, for example — and this will disappear.

Starvation mode

Every time I read about fat Westerners worried about going into starvation mode, I have to laugh. Even those of us of a normal weight could go for several days before we slipped into genuine starvation mode.

What causes the starvation mode stall — a notional weight gain on a highly-reduced number of calories — is a temporary state in which the body will try to hold on to water and fat. Once the body adjusts to fewer calories, it starts letting go of both.

The human race would not be here today if we were not designed to adapt to long periods without food.

Berkhan says:

Efficient adaptation to famine was important for survival during rough times in our evolution. Lowering metabolic rate during starvation allowed us to live longer, increasing the possibility that we might come across something to eat. Starvation literally means starvation. It doesn’t mean skipping a meal not eating for 24 hours. Or not eating for three days even. The belief that meal skipping or short-term fasting causes “starvation mode” is so completely ridiculous and absurd that it makes me want to jump out the window.

Looking at the numerous studies I’ve read, the earliest evidence for lowered metabolic rate in response to fasting occurred after 60 hours (-8% in resting metabolic rate). Other studies show metabolic rate is not impacted until 72-96 hours have passed (George Cahill has contributed a lot on this topic).

Seemingly paradoxical, metabolic rate is actually increased in short-term fasting.

Protein intake

Confusion over how much protein to ingest per day is partially related to powdered proteins that athletes take.

In the fitness world, athletes take whey protein to elevate amino acid levels. Casein enables a sustained release of amino acids. Whey is considered anabolic and casein anti-catabolic (inhibiting muscle loss).

As a result, there is much talk about ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ proteins. This has led to a debate among dieters in general about what sort of protein to eat and how much.

Most of us do not have to worry about that because we do not use whey or casein. Where food is concerned:

Most whole food proteins are absorbed at a rate of 3-6 grams an hour. Add other macronutrients to that and they’ll take longer.

The average Western dieter does not need to concern himself or herself with steady or frequent protein intake during the day:

protein is absorbed at a very slow rate …

100 grams of protein as part of a mixed meal at the end of the day would still be releasing aminos for 16-24 hours.

Prolonged fasting — real starvation — would pose a problem as the body would have to convert amino acids into glucose which it would then burn for energy. However, most of us will never be in that situation, even when fasting intermittently:

Obviously, for someone who eats a high protein meal before fasting, this is a moot point as you will have plenty of aminos available from food during the fast.

Conclusion

We worry far too much about eating, which has become a Western obsession.

The body does not need much of what we consume daily.

The more active you are, the more you need to eat. The less active — e.g. office workers — do not need to eat too often.

When my mother was working between the 1940s and 1980s, she said that no food was allowed in the office. Coffee was not even allowed at the desk until the 1970s in her experience. Hence the coffee break, which was at specified, staggered times. Food had to be eaten in the employee lounge. For many employees, that meant lunch. Snacks were considered self-indulgent except on special occasions.

We’ve taken food consumption to outrageous levels. It is no wonder we are getting fatter and fatter, especially since many of our snacks are carbohydrate-heavy.

More to follow tomorrow on diet and meals.

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