The issue of meal timing is a dense thicket of conflicting advice, a mix of conventional wisdom dispensed from USA Today articles, broscience on Internet forums, and confusing physiological feedback from a dysfunctional metabolism. How can one wade through it all and stay sane? You’ve been told your entire life that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but then you hear about intermittent fasting, Warrior Diets, and skipping breakfast while thriving. The buff/cut/shredded/ripped/insert-increasingly-violent-adjective-to-describe-one’s-leanness-here (what’s next, “flayed”?) dudes at the gym insist you should break up your eating into at least six small meals (and if possible, maintain a steady IV-drip of Muscle Milk throughout the day) to “boost” your metabolism. Some say three meals a day works just as well, while others say it’s even superior. Others try to simplify things. They suggest listening to your own body, to eat when hungry and fast when not, which makes sense, but what if you’re overweight and hungry all the time – can your body’s metabolic signaling really be trusted?
These are common concerns. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I think I can make navigating the meal timing issue a little easier for people. Let’s go through a couple of the most common questions and explore what might work. I think you’ll find that context is key.
It’s true that epidemiology shows habitual breakfast skippers trend toward being fatter and less healthy than traditional breakfasters. People who skip breakfast are more likely to be dieters (meaning they’re overweight) and lead generally unhealthy lifestyles (since skipping breakfast is widely seen as unhealthy, they’re more likely to engage in other unhealthy activities).
Is this true for you, though? Are you technically skipping breakfast, only to grab a Frappucino on the way to work and eat a couple stale donuts in your office at 10 AM? Are you skipping breakfast intuitively, simply because you’re not hungry? Or are you skipping breakfast while mustering up all the willpower you have and ignoring your body’s cries for sustenance? These are two very different physiological states. I’d argue that the intuitive breakfast skipper is not skipping breakfast at all. Instead, he (or she) is in tune with his body. He’s still breaking his fast, just at a later time. The tortured breakfast skipper is fighting against his own satiety hormones, a battle he cannot win over the long haul. He’s living in perpetual metabolic discord. What do you think he’s more likely to eat for lunch – a Big Ass Salad whose contents he lovingly and thoughtfully prepared the night before, or a Big Mac combo?
If you’re of the former category and a traditionally-timed breakfast simply never occurs to you, you’re fine. Stick with it and eat when you get hungry, especially if your fat-loss efforts are succeeding.
Others might want to eat a protein-rich breakfast. Overweight teens who habitually skipped breakfast ate either a high-protein breakfast (50 grams protein) or a breakfast with normal amounts of protein (18 grams) for seven days. Three hours after their last breakfast on the seventh day, researchers measured the teens’ neural responses to pictures of food. The high-protein group displayed the least amount of activity in areas of the brain associated with food reward. According to brain imaging scans, the high-protein group was more sated and less interested in the idea of food than the low-protein group. Of course, the usual caveats apply here: these overweight teens were not skipping breakfast so they could do their afternoon squat session fasted, they probably weren’t interested in fasting-induced cellular autophagy, and I doubt they skipped breakfast spontaneously because they were happily humming along on stored body fat energy. In short, they are a specific demographic whose results may not apply to you. But if you’re the type who’s tried to skip breakfast and failed miserably – or did it and felt miserable and ravenous – you might try eating a high-protein breakfast. Add some fat to that protein and I bet you could maintain satiation for longer than the three hours described in the study.
To graze or to feast? According to many fitness “experts,” grazing is supposed to “stoke the metabolic fire,” while infrequent meals “slow your metabolism.” The idea is that eating many small meals keeps your metabolism plugging away at a high rate for the entire day, helping you burn more fat. Conversely, going too long between meals slows down your metabolism, so that when you do eat, your body is sluggish to respond to the caloric load and you end up storing it as fat.
It’s a neat-sounding theory, but it isn’t true.
First of all, there is no metabolic advantage to eating multiple meals. Yeah, your body expends metabolic energy to process and digest food, but it doesn’t matter when or how it’s eaten. You could eat a steak in a single sitting or the same steak cut up into five pieces, each eaten an hour apart, and the total energy expenditure required to process and digest the steak would be identical in both cases. So, assuming macronutrient ratios and caloric content are identical, eating more frequently doesn’t make your metabolism “burn” brighter. If it did, this study would have ruled in favor of increased meal frequency as an effective tool in weight loss for obese patients. But it didn’t.
But wait: eating more frequently keeps you sated, right? If you’re eating more often and keep a cache of snacks on hand, you should be able to keep hunger at bay. This must be true because those 100-calorie snack packs of cookies and chips are so successful, and I always see the trimmest, sveltest folks happily snacking away on them. Why, I remember seeing a cubicle garbage bin positively filled to the brim with 100-cal snack wrappers. Its inhabitant was off for lunch at the time, but with all that healthy snacking, I imagine he or she was fit as a fiddle!
Ha, no. A recent study actually suggests that eating more frequently reduces measures of satiety and fullness in overweight and obese men (the population that most desperately needs satiety, mind you), while eating less frequent, higher-protein meals increases satiety and reduces hunger. This is buttressed by the hordes of anecdotes I receive in my inbox from folks who only achieved freedom from constant hunger when they started eating real, substantial Primal meals and stopped obsessing over frequent, smaller meals.
Another study, featured in a recent Weekend Link Love, reveals that 25% of Americans’ calories now come from snacks, half of which are sweetened beverages. Sure, drinking soda and eating chips in between meals is obviously terrible, but that doesn’t really apply to Primal snackers and their macadamia nuts, beef jerky, and berries. Or does it?
For certain groups, I think healthy snacking, or smaller, healthy meals, may be warranted. If you’re starving, it’s definitely better to reach for the beef jerky than the cookie. Chris Kresser wrote about how infrequent, larger meals and IFing (even in the context of a “paleo-type” diet) cause wild blood sugar swings in some of his patients, most notably the stressed-out ones with cortisol disregulation, so that’s something to consider. In my experience, whenever I’ve had a bad night’s sleep or am going through a particularly stressful situation with work or life in general, I like breakfast; I get hungrier more often and skipping breakfast or fasting simply doesn’t feel right, so I don’t. Rather than tough it out or power through it, I listen to my body in these situations and eat if I’m hungry. I strongly suspect that trying to fast when your body doesn’t “want” to does more harm than good. Problems arise when this becomes chronic, when you’re always stressed out, always hungry, and always snacking. But in the short term? Eat when hungry.
If you must snack, include some protein. As to why, I’ll draw your attention to a brilliant post by J. Stanton, entitled “Why Snacking Makes You Weak, Not Just Fat.” Stanton explains why eating a carb rich snack without protein is inherently catabolic: the insulin spike stimulates muscle protein synthesis, for which the body needs amino acids, and without dietary protein the body must draw on muscle protein stores. Once or twice this wouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re snacking on protein-deficient carby foods throughout the day, every day, you’re eventually going to see muscle wasting. The classic example is the skinny-fat cyclist or jogger with a fanny pack full of dried fruit and a bandolier of glucose gel packets.
Personally, I like my buddy Aaron Blaisdell‘s slogan: “Not IF, but WHEN (When Hunger Ensues Naturally).” Let hunger happen. Don’t force the fasting. Don’t fight hunger just because your official “eating window” hasn’t arrived yet, and if you feel it’s “ensuing” unnaturally, do some investigation. Are you sleeping well? Are you training too much, or not at all? Is your 80/20 turning into a 60/40? If all that stuff is under control, consider that you may need a few days to entrain your ghrelin secretion to your eating schedule. Ghrelin? It’s a hormone that precedes and indeed predicts mealtimes, induces hunger and is secreted when you’re about to eat. Your ghrelin secretion schedule follows your eating schedule, and it’s a fast responder, so a few days should be plenty of time to get things lined up. In the meantime, you may have to deal with a little extra hunger at your previously normal mealtimes.
In the end, it all comes down to doing what works for you. I’ll admit that IF is a great tool for people who thrive on it. I like throwing in a fast here and there, because it works for me. You have to consider how these strategies work within the confines of your physiology. If something isn’t working for you, don’t “stick with it” just because it worked for others or there’s a big blog post listing all the benefits with links to rat studies and human trials. Eat a big breakfast if you need it. Eat food before your workout if you find you perform better with something in your stomach. Your needs are the bottom line – all other considerations pale in comparison.
Of course, your needs will change, especially as you continue with the PB lifestyle. Once you start sleeping, eating, dealing with stress, and moving well, things get easier. You might get hungry a little later in the day. You might find you even have enough energy for a quick workout before that first meal. You might look up from your plate and realize that it’s noon and you haven’t eaten in sixteen hours – and you feel fine. When that happens, go with it. Don’t force it, but let it happen if it will. The good news is that this is all contextual, and nothing is written in stone.
How do you handle meal timing? Have you noticed any changes since adopting a Primal lifestyle?