Today I wanted to address a two-part question posed by @mcoinz79, who asked:
“What are your thoughts on eating several meals throughout the day and it’s effect on metabolism? Or intermittent fasting? I’d read a post on that 😎”
Great questions dude, and thanks for asking - here’s your post, as promised!
Although the question is specific to metabolism, I’m going to start there and pivot a little, in hopes of answering the questions as thoroughly as possible :) just a heads-up!
I love that @mcoinz79 asked this, because almost everyone believes that metabolism is hiding behind the curtain, controlling their body’s fate - and it’s understandable, because metabolism is mentioned often and with wild abandon in fitness information everywhere! It’s become a kind of buzz word, but it’s not the finicky, results-dictating powerhouse so many of us have been led to believe.
There is a ton of information available designed to convince you that one dietary approach is better than the next, and usually a pretty good case is made by the person selling you the information. The nutrition tactics in question often cite their drastic effect on your metabolism front and center, because it’s what everyone wants to hear.
To me, metabolism gets both too much credit and too much shit from all of us, depending on the circumstance. Skinny people get pinned as being blessed with a “high metabolism,” though nobody REALLY knows how much activity they get, their overall food choices, or how much they restrict their caloric intake. If weight gain occurs, most of us are quick to blame our “slow metabolism” or metabolic disfunction, though almost without exception other factors are at fault.
It seems that what most people want is to burn body fat, become lean, and preserve or gain some muscle mass - but considerably changing our metabolism is both unlikely and not the underlying cause of any notable changes we see. In short, it’s not really possible to change your metabolic rate by more than plus or minus about 10% at most (aka not a whole lot), and that is under prolonged extreme conditions.
I think many people out there are curious about these things, because the whirlwind of information can be super confusing and there are lots of fit folks who advocate different approaches.
In regards to eating several small meals versus intermittent fasting, they’re both basically designed to help people stick to a reduced-calorie diet - it’s mainly about which one YOU like the best that will dictate the efficacy of either program.
Each one has its own specific set of supposed benefits, and there are pretty hardcore “teams” of people on both sides who swear by their preferred method. This alone lets us know that both ways of eating are effective for weight loss and muscle maintenance if executed carefully and properly, but whether it’s due to an effect on metabolism can be misleading.
The traditional, very widespread technique of spreading out your food intake throughout the day across small meals is thought to keep your blood sugar levels stable, prevent muscle catabolism (breakdown), as well as manage hunger because you’re essentially constantly snacking or grazing on the tiny meals you’ve prepared.
It’s a common misconception that this style of eating somehow “revs” up your metabolism, or “keeps it running” all day. This is not wrong, per se - our bodies do expend calories breaking down the food we eat, it’s just that the TEF (Thermic Effect of Food, or the amount of calories it takes to utilize the nutrients we’ve consumed) is around 10% of the total calories you eat whether they’re broken down into small amounts or the food is consumed all at once. So yes, eating will cause you to burn some calories, but the frequency and timing doesn’t effect the percentage of calories you burn from eating that food - it’s the overall quantity of food you consume that changes that number.
There are potential drawbacks to this method of eating a bunch of small meals - by never eating a truly “satisfying” quantity of food, you may actually feel consistently hungrier than if you sat down to larger, less frequent meals. This also has a tendency to lead to loss of control when it comes to portion sizes later in the day, when you become so ravenous that you throw caution to the wind and crush whatever food is in sight. However, if you love snacking and don’t care too much about sitting down to a full meal, this might be exactly what you’re looking for!
So does it work? If by work you mean help you lose weight, NOT change your metabolism, then yes. If you’re careful about portion sizes and macronutrient breakdown of your meals and you end each day in a caloric deficit, it sure can produce those results. But just to clarify, any body composition changes you might see while eating this way will be due to your overall calorie restriction, not an increase in metabolism itself.
How about Intermittent Fasting? This is a way of eating that requires you to fast (not consume any food) for most of the day, and then eat your day’s worth of food within a few hours. A popular timeframe is 16:8, or a 16 hour fast with an 8 hour window within which you can eat your food. This technique has really gained a lot of popularity in the last 10 years or so, and people who love to eat huge meals really gravitate toward this approach because you “save” all of your daily calories to be consumed close together within a small window of time, leading to greater feelings of fullness and satisfaction.
I think that one of the major ideas behind this approach (besides limiting the opportunity for you to actually consume calories) is that you burn more body fat because by restricting your body’s access to fuel from food, you force it to rely more consistently on its fat stores for energy. It’s also harder to take in as many calories if you eat a big meal to the point of satisfaction or fullness when you break your fast, because you’re not hungry again for several hours and your “window of eating” closes with you still feeling satisfied from likely fewer calories than your daily caloric need.
There are drawbacks here too, like mismanaging meals within the fasting window - purely reducing the timeframe within which you eat may not be enough, because if you choose low-quality, high-calorie foods that are easy to overeat, you may still exceed your daily caloric needs within your eating window and end up in a surplus. Just because you’re fasting doesn’t mean you can go nuts and eat 5 pints of ice cream to break your fast and expect to still lose weight. Regardless of technique, a caloric deficit must be achieved to drop pounds.
Does it work? Again, if you’re asking whether it can help you lose weight, the answer is yes. If you’re mindful of your food quality, portions, macronutrients, and overall calories, it absolutely can. Again, this is not due to actual changes in metabolism though, but the caloric deficit you create by eating less over the course of a day.
In conclusion friends, the real deal here (as with any diet, really) is caloric restriction.
For most of us, and for all intents and purposes here:
Caloric deficit = weight loss. Caloric surplus = weight gain.
Macronutrient breakdown, food quality, and other factors can play their roles, but we can do ourselves all a favor by leaving metabolism out of the conversation for the most part and focusing on the much simpler concept of caloric intake, that’s much more relevant to our progress (or lack thereof).
The moral of the story is, metabolism isn’t that much of a player here and whatever suits you, your body, and your preferences the best is the approach I’d suggest you go for. Trial and error is part of every fit person’s journey to optimal health, so trying a few different strategies is a great way to learn what works for you!
No matter what you choose to give a shot to, make sure to give it a fighting chance to be effective for you - remember that changes take time! Try at LEAST a month of dedication to any plan (unless you absolutely hate it), with several methods of measuring your progress, before you decide whether it “works.”
I hope this answered your questions @mcoinz79 - I so appreciate you asking and giving me the opportunity to address these topics!
As always, I welcome and am grateful for any and all feedback :)
Thanks so much for reading, friends - I appreciate you spending some time here with me!
Please feel free to comment, upvote, or resteem if you’d like! :)