Meal timing…Should you eat 6 small meals a day or fast for days at a time?
There is so much conflicting information out there, especially with the popularity of Intermittent Fasting (IF) on the rise.
And I’m going to tell you the answer right up front…
I believe that meal timing should be based on what makes YOU feel best.
I don’t think you need to eat every 2 hours. And I don’t think you need to fast.
Your muscles will not melt away if you don’t eat super frequently. And you don’t need to stress over eating perfectly timed meals around your workouts.
What you DO need to do is LISTEN to your body and learn when you are ACTUALLY hungry and respond to it.
Because we’ve become so OUT OF TUNE with our bodies, I think trying Intermittent Fasting can be a great self “experiment.”
I did IF strictly for a year. Loved it overall. BUT I’ve now found the balance that makes me happy. And it isn’t strictly doing IF or eating 6 small meals a day.
There are some days I’m not hungry and will fast till 3 pm easily.
Well other days I wake up at 6 am and need to eat instantly.
But because I did IF, I now respond to my hunger cues.
(And I’ll tell you right here and now…there is no MAGIC cut off time at night that you need to stop eating or you’ll get fat. If you need the food, you need the food..)
Anyway, I think Intermittent Fasting is a great thing to experience and really makes you learn to listen to your body.
But really quick…What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting isn’t so much a “diet” as more of an “eating schedule.”
Basically you will give yourself an “eating window” and outside of that window you will fast. While there are different length fasts you can include, a very common form of IF is the 16/8 set up.
You will fast for 16 hours and then have an 8 hour eating window.
For many, this is really just skipping breakfast (or dinner if you’d prefer).
An example of this would be fasting until even just 11 am before eating and then stopping at 7 pm.
But won’t I lose muscle mass if I don’t eat for awhile? And isn’t breakfast the most important meal of the day?
To put it simply….
Our muscles don’t just “melt off” if we don’t eat for two hours.
As long as we get them the fuel they need, we will retain our lean muscle. And actually by fasting we can switch to burning FAT vs. the readily available fuel we’ve just eaten.
Plus, even if you eat every 6 hours, if you eat too little, you could lose muscle. So being careful not to cut calories too low is actually more key than eating frequently. And you need to make sure, no matter how frequently you eat, you’re getting enough PROTEIN each and every day!
But what about breakfast being so important?
Well, all of those super influential and often sited studies about breakfast were funded by KELLOGG and…well…other food companies with a vested interest in people eating breakfast foods.
So…there’s a lot of debate about their validity as more and more studies come out proving that by actually eating LATER, you may be get better weight loss results.
Plus, who’s to say when breakfast time has to end!?! Breakfast food at 1 pm!? Count me in! 😉
Ok so breakfast doesn’t matter and your muscles won’t melt off…but…Why do it?
Well…besides what I consider to be the top reason – learning to respond to what your body needs so you can LEARN to eat intuitively (read more about why I think intuitive eating is a crock of doodoo and something we need to LEARN to do)…
There are lots of studies showing health benefits…everything from improved lipid profiles and blood pressure to improved fat burning and cardiovascular functioning.
Health benefits of Intermittent Fasting are that it:
- Promotes stronger insulin sensitivity and increased growth hormone secretion, which are two keys to losing weight and gaining muscle.
- Reduces your risk for cancer.
- Reduces blood lipids…the bad kinds, including decreased triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and inflammation markers.
- Reduces blood pressure.
- Improves cardiovascular function.
- Improves your brain functioning and can even help prevent conditions such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Other benefits people often find from doing IF:
- You can EAT TILL YOUR FULL because you’re eating fewer bigger meals.
- Less meal planning.
- Easier way to create a calorie deficit.
- Improved fat burning, especially in later stages of the fast.
Well this all sounds great…Why not do it?
I’ve found some interesting debates about whether the benefits above can be accomplished simply by calorie restriction and other healthy eating habits or if IF is the only way.
Frankly, those debates don’t really sway me one way or the other because I do believe that by eating quality foods and dialing in your macros, you can see great results no matter what your meal timing.
The real reason I’m not adamantly in favor of Intermittent Fasting… something I even use myself?
Because I think that any time you FORCE a specific meal timing or restrict when you can eat, whether that is forcing you to eat 6 meals a day or only 1, you create unnecessary headaches AND prevent yourself from learning to listen to your hunger cues.
While fasting can help you create a calorie deficit, all too often people use it to STARVE themselves. And when you get to the point that you are too hungry? Well when you get too hungry, you get too hungry to care.
You reach for whatever is around and generally end up binging. So all that “fasting” to get a calorie deficit and the fat burning benefits of fasting? Well it goes out the window.
And generally we don’t make the healthiest food choices when we are starving so we’re probably not even going to get the benefits of whole, natural foods.
Plus, forcing yourself not to eat when you’re hungry can lead to hanger and low energy.
And the whole point of eating well is so that you FEEL GOOD while working toward looking the way you want!
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t TRY IF even if you feel hungry from a change in your eating schedule initially.
All too often we get hungry at specific times a day because we are CONDITIONED to based on our routine!
Ok so again…WHY TRY IT?!
A huge reason why I believe IF is a good experiment is it teaches us what are true hunger cues and what may actually be us wanting to eat out of fatigue or boredom or simply even ROUTINE.
It can help us recognize if we do better with less frequent meals OR if we are one of those people that like to snack and eat every 2 hours.
It helps us not feel forced into a rigid schedule and learn what works best FOR US!
You may find that more frequent meals help you prevent overeating and avoid becoming hungry while on a calorie deficit. And if you know that you’re a snacker, eating more frequently can be key.
Or maybe you’ve always forced 6 small meals because you thought you needed to, which only adds to the stress of your already busy schedule…And with IF you can have just have 2 big meals in the afternoon and evening and make everything work so you can see results.
The key is….meal timing shouldn’t cause you added stress. OR cause you to feel low energy or hungry!
Meal timing should be used to enhance how you feel throughout the day.
It should be you RESPONDING to what your body needs and making your diet fit your lifestyle and your needs.
So whether you feel best snacking all day or eating one big meal, I think it can all work. BUT you need to experiment to find what helps you feel energized and on top of your game.
Don’t feel like you NEED to eat at certain times!
It’s why Meal Timing is one of those things to play around with AFTER your macros and calories are first dialed in.
I have clients doing Macro Cycling who fast for 24 hours once a week. Others do the 16/8 Intermittent Fasting every single day. Still others eat 6 small meals.
And some…well some are like me and they simply eat when they’re hungry or when their schedule allows and just focus on hitting their macros for the day no matter what their eating schedule looks like that day.
They key is not to let meal timing stress you out because anything can work especially when you dial in your macros first!
Dial in the quality of your food so you can be flexible with your meal timing and make your diet work for YOUR lifestyle!
Learn more about YOUR Macro Ratio so you can make your meal timing work for you.