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Eat Regularly and Less as the Day Goes On

By Chad Tackett

Most of us have been raised to eat three meals a day, progressively increasing the amount of food as the day goes on. The typical American has a small breakfast (if at all), a medium-sized lunch, and a large dinner, which usually includes dessert. Many of us still have the idea that snacking is bad -- we were taught it would ruin our appetite. Unfortunately, these eating patterns make it very difficult to manage our weight.

The frequency of how often we eat per day has been shown to greatly affect how fat we are. Many studies have concluded that those who eat four to six smaller meals per day have less body fat than those eating two or three meals a day, despite the fact that both groups eat about the same amount of calories. In addition, eating patterns of three or more meals a day may also have a positive effect on blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are usually lower than levels from one or two meals a day. A calorie is not the same calorie at different times of the day; calories consumed at dinner and later are more likely to be stored than those consumed in the morning or mid-day, simply because we are less active at night.

Eating only three times a day requires us to go too long without eating. By the time lunch or dinner rolls around, we are so famished we eat anything easily available. Eating small, healthy snacks in between meals not only prevents you from gorging; it increases your metabolism and helps you feel energized and satisfied throughout the day.

It is also important not to eat too much at each of these snacks and meals but rather just enough to feel satisfied and energized. However, if you do eat too much (beyond being pleasantly full), don't feel guilty; focus on the present moment rather than the past. And certainly don't eat again just because it is dinner time--eat only when you feel the need to eat. If you are not as hungry at dinner time, eat a smaller portion than you are used to--eat according to your level of hunger--not just because "it is time" or "that is how much I usually eat at dinner." Likewise, it is important not to eat snacks if you are not physically hungry. Always pay attention to your internal signals of hunger. It is crucial that you experience comfortable hunger. If you are constantly eating just to eat, you will never experience true hunger and not learn to respond to your internal hunger signals. If you have been dieting, you are probably out of touch with what true hunger is.

Food high in fat can mask physiological hunger signals because the emptying of the stomach is delayed due to the high fat content. Making small changes and decreasing the amount of fat you eat in foods will help you attend to physiological hunger. In time, your food choices will reflect new preferences that are lower in fat, allowing you to acknowledge more accurate hunger signals.

Eating a large meal increases the opportunity for fat cells to extract fat from the blood and, therefore, grow bigger. Fat cells can actually adapt to a pattern of large, infrequent meals by becoming more efficient at storing fat.

In addition, a two-to-three-meal a day pattern causes the body to face long stretches without food. This eating pattern actually tricks the body into thinking it's in a starvation state, initiating physiological changes that actually slow down your body's resting metabolic rate, the number of calories "burned" at rest. This occurs because your body is trying to conserve energy for fear of starvation. A reduction in metabolic rate slows fat loss. This is another reason why diets do not work. Our body responds to the reduction in calories as if it were starving and your metabolism slows down.

Once again, if you are trying to lose fat by decreasing your caloric intake, it is best to eat small meals and snacks four to six times a day so your metabolic rate will stay "revved" up throughout the day, making fat loss and/or maintenance a much easier and healthier task. Of course, be sure that the meals are nutritious, well-balanced, and low in fats and simple sugars. If you eat four to six meals a day and don't eat healthy, low-fat foods, you are missing the big picture.

In addition to eating smaller meals more frequently, try to plan so that you don't eat your largest meal of the day late at night. The body's metabolic rate has a natural cycle of highs and lows, peaking late in the day and dropping to its lowest level during sleep. It makes sense to avoid putting a large meal into your system after 8:00 at night when your metabolic rate is beginning to slow down. If you do feel hungry after this time, you don't need to go to bed hungry, just try to eat something especially healthy and in small portions. If it is not possible to avoid a later dinner, eat a snack around 6:00 p.m. so you won't be so hungry later. I hope this helps and you have the opportunity to enjoy all the wonderful benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle.

- Bio: Chad Tackett has degrees in Exercise and Heath Science and Nutrition, is a Certified Personal Trainer, and is a regular guest lecturer to both professional and lay audiences on the principles of effective exercise and good nutrition.

last update: February 2009

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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