Yesterday’s post looked at daily eating frequency, specifically, misconceptions about diet and number of meals.

Over the past 30 – 40 years, sedentary Westerners think that adopting an athlete’s eating pattern will help them lose weight.

On the face of it, the reasoning makes partial sense. However, what is missing in adopting the eating plan alone is that it leaves out the other half: strenuous physical activity.

Suit the right eating plan for you

Millions of us are eating too much too often with the result that we are putting on weight — or at least not losing it — despite grazing on five to eight ‘meals’ a day.

Fitness expert and nutrition expert Alan Aragon explains (emphases mine):

People have varying total energy demands, and this can differently influence their macronutrient requirements. Ratios per se shouldn’t be the focus since they’re merely a default result of figuring absolute needs. For example, those with a moderate to high energy output (through formal training, non-exercise activity, or both), can typically consume a higher amount of carbohydrate and still lose weight. In contrast, sedentary or barely active folks have lower overall energy demands, thus a high carbohydrate intake wouldn’t likely be optimal. Nevertheless, there’s rather interesting, yet unreplicated research examining the effects of insulin sensitivity on weight loss (low-carb worked better for insulin-resistant subjects while high-carb worked better for insulin-sensitive subjects). Unfortunately, body composition wasn’t assessed, nor was there any structured exercise protocol. My hunch is that a well-designed, progressive training program would greatly diminish the influence of pre-existent differences in insulin sensitivity on weight loss.

Reading extensively on ‘moderate’ output tells us that it requires not an hour at the gym but more extensive and intense physical activity than the average office worker gets: morning run, lunchtime exercise and an hour or two in the evenings. Most of us do not come anywhere close to this type of training and conditioning regime.

Eating post-exercise — caution advised

This brings me to another related subject, which is the necessity of eating after an hour of exercise. This has been going on for at least 50 years and is still prevalent among average dieters who eat immediately after callisthenics (in the old days) and something like Pilates (nowadays). For my mother’s friends in the 1960s and for my former cleaning lady in the 2000s, this meant a girls’ break with ice cream and cake! Seriously! They hadn’t even burned up enough calories to warrant such an indulgence. Even worse, they then went home to have lunch or dinner. More critically, they were not losing weight! Not surprisingly, some gained!

Aragon tells us how eating after exercise benefits athletes, but, generally, only under certain conditions. The replenishment is protein:

Postexercise protein intake has been promoted in both lay and academic circles as an urgent, universally imperative tactic, but it’s rarely ever put in the proper perspective. The origin of the postexercise “anabolic window of opportunity” began with research examining postexercise carbohydrate timing on the rate of glycogen resynthesis after depletion …

Protein got lumped into the supposed ‘magic’ of the postexercise period after studies showed that protein expedited glycogen resynthesis when co-ingested with carbohydrate (particularly in the case of insufficient carbohydrate). Furthermore, research has also shown that protein consumed in the postexercise period can work synergistically with the trained state to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). However, these studies have two main limitations. First off, in most studies the protein was given to subjects who trained after an overnight fast, minus a pre-exercise meal. Secondly, the bulk of the research showing the benefit of immediate postexercise protein is acute (short-term). The majority of chronic (long-term) studies lasting several weeks has failed to corroborate the acute findings. Many people – even smart folks in the industry – are unaware of this, probably because the bulk of the research with null findings began in 2009 & onward.

Aragon says that nutrition studies can support one thing or another, as my readers and I have discovered.

Diet — one size does not fit all

Aragon points out the difficulty and individualistic nature of diet. We cannot all follow the same one, which is why some eat frequently successfully and others skip meals to maintain normal weight and health.

For those embarking on a weight loss programme, he says:

For losing fat past the initial stages, I’m a proponent of imposing a calorie deficit, and depending on the individual situation, this can involve a decrease in caloric intake, an increase in caloric output, or a combination of both. In the case of intake reduction, it doesn’t make sense to hack into critical nutrients – especially protein, whose requirement actually increases in a caloric deficit. So, for the most part, it’s carbs that will get the brunt of the reduction when it’s time to cut calories, while protein & fat remain somewhat stable (I typically set protein slightly higher than it needs to be). The degree of carb reduction varies individually, but the underlying aim is to consume the highest amount of carbs that still allow a satisfactory rate of fat loss. This approach accomplishes two main things – it enables the highest possible training performance (in terms of both strength & endurance), and also the lowest chance of undue hormonal downregulation from prolonged bouts of dieting. Carb reduction can then be strategically positioned as a trump card. In other words, carbs can always be incrementally reduced on an as-needed basis, depending on how results are proceeding.

In my own case last year, I cut carbs in half initially then, seeing that was not working too well, cut them out completely for several weeks. I do not eat any carbs (outside of those in green vegetables) more frequently than once every few weeks. Even then, that is only an occasional slice of bread or Yorkshire pudding, homemade in both cases. Our house has no pasta, rice, potatoes or other starches outside of flour.

With regard to protein, remember that Aragon is talking about athletes, not the average person. Yesterday’s post cited Martin Berghan of Leangains who said that 100g of protein taken with other healthful foods at dinner will be sufficient for a 16- to 24-hour period.

Whatever dieters choose to do:

I’ve seen the greatest client success come from letting individual preference dictate meal frequency. Some people do great on small frequent meals, others do great on the opposite (and all points in between). The theoretical advantages of any given dietary approach go straight out the window if it’s at odds with someone’s personal preference & adherence capability.

Intermittent fasting (IF)

Individual diet tailoring ties in with some people preferring to take one or two meals a day, allowing the digestive tract to rest and adjust in the interim. This is called intermittent fasting, or IF.

This is a relatively new concept and, whilst it’s big among some athletes, the average person looks upon it with horror.

However, some of us only eat once a day and we’re fine. Once one retires or works from home, cutting down on food makes sense. We’re not that active and don’t need the calories we once did. Your mileage might differ, however.

Aragon says that researchers are now backing away from the idea of many small meals a day, although more studies need to be done on the benefits of IF:

Academics have known for a while now that research has not supported the lore of frequent, small meals to stoke the metabolism better than the equivalent in larger, fewer meals. Furthermore, research has not supported the idea that small, frequent meals are necessary for preserving muscle mass. The evidence as a whole has not indicated any threat to muscle preservation during dieting when meal frequency is reduced – either daily or intermittently through the week. In fact, some studies have shown superior lean mass retention with IF during hypocaloric conditions. However, this could have been due to measurement error inherent with bioelectrical impedance analysis. It should also be noted that the IF research thus far has not involved structured exercise protocols.


IF presents an effective option for those who prefer the convenience and luxury of larger meals – not to mention, less preparation & transportation of meals through the day.

Conclusion and more advice

Eat in the quantity and frequency that suits you.

We should avoid eating like athletes if our exercise regime is relatively negligable.

The overweight and obese would do well to take stock of what they are eating, perhaps by keeping a food diary for a month. This helps one to analyse where calories peak and what types of food is consumed. Adjust downward accordingly.

Too many carbs? Eliminate processed foods — cakes, chocolate bars, cookies and savoury biscuits. Cut down drastically on bread, potatoes, pasta and rice, replacing them with fat. Cream cheese and celery or carrot sticks can comprise part of lunch.

Be careful with protein, because the body can process excess protein the way it does carbohydrates. Ultimately, this leads to weight gain. Buy fatty meats and eat the fat.

Satiety is everything. Upping fat content for those with constant hunger for carbs and even protein can help to stop the need to eat so often. Calorie consumption will go down, not up. Taste buds also change on a low carb high fat diet. The longer one follows it, the less one craves sweets and starches.

Fat is filling. Fat is good. It’s the most self-indulgent, calorie-controlled food you can incorporate into a daily, ongoing eating plan.

More on diet and intermittent fasting soon.