My last three posts on diet debunked popular breakfast myths, warned overweight individuals not to adopt an athlete’s diet and discussed why we should not graze.

The human body is just as complex as human beings are. We are as individual inside as we are in the personality traits we possess. Genes and metabolism vary significantly, even among people with seemingly similar physical characteristics.

Therefore, the type of weight-loss plan or long-term way of eating is crucial. This also includes the daily meal pattern.

Grazing is a new idea

Over the past 25 years, Westerners have been told that eating fewer smaller meals every day helps to regulate the body and metabolism.

However, this was not always the case. It is a concept which would have been ridiculed in the era when I grew up. In fact, frequent eaters would have been accused of gluttony or self-indulgence.

Dr John Douillard recalls the same three-a-day regime (italics in the original, emphases in bold mine):

Eating breakfast, lunch and supper with no snacks in between will provide a natural fast in between meals that will encourage fat metabolism.

When I was growing up, all the kids on my block had an early supper around 5:30 p.m. After supper, we played for a while and then came inside and went to bed. There were no bed time snacks – the kitchen closed at 6 p.m. sharp.  We would wake up and have breakfast around 7 a.m. and then walk 10 miles to school in the snow. Just kidding! But that was 13 hours straight with no food. We slept through the night fasting and broke the fast with break-fast. That means that every night, we reset fat metabolism. This allowed us to maintain normal blood sugar, stable moods and overall greater health than what is created by the cultural habits I see today.

What about healthful snacks?

If you have a healthy snack, like a carrot, in between breakfast and lunch you will burn the carrot but you will not burn any stored fat between those two meals.

This means that if you refrain from grazing — snacking:

your body will be forced to burn stored fat to get you to supper

Sounds like a formula for weight loss, doesn’t it?

I remember from my youth that obese people were few and far between. In addition to three squares a day, we also did not have as many starchy snacks — cookies and savoury biscuits — on supermarket shelves.

Douillard says that, contrary to what we hear and read, man did not survive for thousands of years by eating small snacks throughout the day:

For them, it was feast or famine. Our very presence as a species is due to the fact that humans were able to endure long periods of time without food.

What is ‘fat burning’?

We often hear the expressions ‘burning fat’ or ‘fat burning’. What exactly do they mean?

Douillard explains:

When we talk about “burning fat,” what we are actually referring to is the process of using fat as our fuel, our source of energy. It’s a chemical process, not just a metaphor for losing weight. But fat is only one kind of fuel that can be utilized by our bodies, and carbohydrates —or sugars— are another. When your body has both available, it will burn the sugars first and the fat second

Burning fat detoxifies us and neutralizes excess acids that build up from stress. The problem is that many of us have lost the ability to burn fat effectively and are chronically storing fat and gaining weight.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not need to exercise in order to burn fat. Fat should be our primary — ‘go to’, if you prefer — source of fuel all the time.

Fat is slow-burning and, therefore, meant to aid our survival. That is why it takes a week or so to lose a pound of fat. We should not confuse losing fat with water weight, which comes off and goes back on rapidly.

The problem in the West is that carbohydrates — starches and sugars — burn quickly. Most of us eat too many carbohydrates. We feel a decrease in blood sugar a few hours after consuming them and make the incorrect assumption that we need more food during the day. However, if we stopped eating carbohydrates and stopped grazing, our bodies would be forced to burn fat as a primary source of fuel as we go about our daily work.

Fewer meals better

Echoing Douillard’s preference for three meals instead of many is Elitefts, a fitness site. In an article about meal frequency, Elite points out that dieters in medical studies featuring grazing were given fewer calories per day to consume in several small intakes. That means that people did not lose weight because they were eating more often. They were losing weight because they were consuming fewer calories overall.

Elite also advocates fewer meals per day because that is how the body is meant to function. As I wrote in a recent anti-grazing post, we can safely ignore warnings about going into starvation mode. The Elite article says the same thing:

The body does not trigger a hormonal cascade to signal possible starvation if it goes a few hours, or even several hours without eating. The body copes well with long spans of no food. The signals triggered by starvation—the ones that supposedly kick in after only a couple hours of not eating—take roughly three or four days of very low calories to activate39-48. They will not activate in two hours, or three or eight. The entire premise from which this idea is built is wrong.

Another mistake dieters make is to think that the more they feed the body, the more weight they will lose. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s a popular belief — and a mistaken assumption:

The body doesn’t work that way. It turns out that longer stretches between meals makes the body release more fat to be burned as fuel27, 28, 37, 49, 51. What the body wants is to use fat if there’s no food coming in and store fat when there’s too much food. Such routine frequent feedings actually slow resting metabolism50 and lowers another component of metabolism called the thermic effect of food51-54.

The overweight among us should stop grazing if they wish to burn fat!

WebMD has looked at several studies of grazing and weight loss. Their article says there is no conclusive benefit to grazing. In fact:

eating six meals a day actually made people want to eat more.

The tendency for any of us is to underestimate the amount of food we eat! Most of us seeking to lose weight are often eating more than we think. Going back to three or fewer meals a day will help regulate what we eat — as long as we are careful to eat within our calorie range. This means being accurate with food portions.

Fewer meals benefit the body

Those of us who eat fewer meals a day, especially if we have only one or two, are improving our gut flora — good bacteria in the digestive tract.

Not only that, but we’re helping to improve the way our bodies use insulin.

Authority Nutrition says that those of us who fast intermittently — e.g. eating one meal a day — are helping our bodies function normally:

… studies in both humans and animals show that intermittent fasting has various health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity, lower glucose, lower insulin and various other improvements (11).

Intermittent fasting also induces a cellular clean-up process called autophagy, where the body’s cells clear up waste products that build up in the cells and contribute to aging and disease (12).

Better use of insulin lessens the possibility of becoming pre-diabetic. Although much more research needs to be done, some researchers believe that the risk of cancer may also be reduced as cells are healthier and functioning better.

US News discussed the link between fewer meals a day and better gut flora (first highlight in the original):

Grazing may increase risk for developing bacterial overgrowth. When bacteria replicate excessively in the small intestine, it results in a condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. As anyone who’s had SIBO can attest, the condition produces a variety of miserable symptoms, from bloating and diarrhea to nausea and constipation. Once it develops, SIBO must be treated with antibiotics in order to be eradicated.

In order to prevent bacterial overgrowth:

The intestines need to be fasted for at least 90 minutes at a time in order for routine cleansing waves to occur. So if you’re prone to stretching out your meals over the course of a few hours – say, taking a few nibbles at a time while you work and multi-task – there’s a reasonable chance you’ll never go a full hour and a half without food passing through your small bowel. People who have a history of SIBO – or other risk factors for the condition, such as chronic use of acid suppressing medications or pancreatic insufficiency, may want to consider whether giving their gut a break for a few hours each day may be of benefit.

Other problems with grazing

The US News article goes on to say that grazing is not recommended for people who are constipated:

Chalk up that experience to an involuntary nervous system reflex called the gastrocolic reflex, which instigates forward movement (peristalsis) in the colon after being triggered by one of several different stimuli.

At the top of the list of triggers is physical distension of the stomach. The stomach has mechanical receptors that detect stretch. Significant stretch after a large volume intake or bulky meal – say, an entrée-sized salad, a large tub of popcorn or a Thanksgiving meal – sends a strong signal to the colon, essentially telling it to make room for the load of food that’s about to head down the pike. (Higher caloric loads, such as those associated with traditional meals, also trigger the gastrocolic reflex.) For people who tend toward constipation, then, consolidating their food volume into fewer eating occasions can leverage the gastrocolic reflex and maximize their chances for a post-meal movement. Conversely, nibbling small amounts throughout the day may not produce enough stimulating stretch of the stomach or enough of a caloric load to trigger the gastrocolic reflex.

After-dinner snacks can also produce or aggravate acid reflux:

If you experience heartburn while trying to fall asleep – or wake up with a sour taste in the mouth, a scratchy throat or excessive coughing – examining your nighttime eating patterns may be worthwhile. For most people, it’s best to stop eating two hours before bedtime – and three full hours if you have chronic acid reflux – to allow your stomach time to fully empty before lying down flat.

Conclusion

Our grandmothers were right: two or three meals a day keep us healthy. They would have laughed at the absurdity of grazing.

So should we.

More tomorrow, specifically on food and insulin.

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