In order to lose belly fat, you need to eat fat burning foods and you may have to eat more often. Part of that sentence may seem a little counterintuitive but there is some common sense behind it. In fact, re-learning how to space your meals may be one of the smarter nutritional moves you can make.
The traditional western method of eating focuses on fewer, larger meals but this advice contradicts some emerging nutritional guidelines. Admittedly there is a paucity of consistent research in the area of meal frequency, but a number of studies point to the revelation eating smaller more frequent meals may be optimal for your weight loss endeavours.
There’s an old proverb that goes like this; Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.
Now there is some truth to this. A bunch of studies have confirmed the importance of breakfast, linking its consumption to improved health, concentration, reduced risk of heart disease and obesity. First thing in the morning we break the fast our body has been on overnight and we require a decent amount of fuel to power us through our day.
At lunch time we’ve still got 9 or 10 hours of our day to energise. In the evening, though, many of us will eat dinner, sit in front of the TV and then go to sleep. The huge meal that most people consume is going straight to their belly. A meal that is half the size of the traditional western dinner could be a more sensible proposition.
Many of the leanest people in the world have one thing in common – they typically eat smaller, more regular meals than the rest of the population. Eating every few waking hours might be a smart way to take in your nutrition.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics analysed the impact of eating frequency on 257 adults categorised as either overweight, normal weight or weight loss maintainers. The research identified that eating frequency was higher in weight loss and normal weight individuals as compared to their overweight counterparts.
Here are a few reasons why a more regular meal pattern may be beneficial:
Regular eating provides a consistent supply of energy
“Grazing was the way our body was designed to eat” according to nutritionist Antony Haynes. He hypothesises that larger meals place a greater burden on the digestive system as the body struggles to convert more volumous meals into energy.
Smaller, more frequent meals allow you to maintain a constant, ongoing supply of fuel throughout the day for exercise intervention or general energy consuming activity. They also deliver a stabilising impact on blood glucose thus reducing late afternoon energy lapses and crashes.
Avoid binging and snacking
Long gaps between meals can leave you open to cravings and 'quick-fix' junk food solutions. Eating fat burning foods every 3 hours provides enhanced appetite control and allows you to feel satisfied throughout the day. If you do get hungry, you’ll only be a short time away from your next scheduled meal.
A study into eating patterns of healthy males in their early 20s analysed the impact of meal frequency. The research pitted a single larger meal against five equal portions. Results suggested disseminating nutrition load into smaller meals throughout the day enhanced appetite control and satiety as well as exhibiting a reduced insulin response.
Sarah Drummond, from the Queen Margarets University College in Edinburgh, is a leading investigator into health, activity and rehabilitation research. Her investigation into eating patterns further supports a regular grazing approach, concluding that individuals consuming smaller more frequent meals exhibited healthier diets than their 'three squares a day' counterparts.
It speeds up your metabolism
The impact of regular ‘mini meals’ on basal metabolic rate is a controversial topic to say the least. Experts do agree the very act of digesting foods we eat burns calories due to the metabolic cost of processing food for use and storage. This phenomenon is known commonly as the thermic effect of food, or dietary thermogenesis.
Some experts also attribute regular grazing with an incremental metabolic boost, and greater calorie burning. Opponents however believe the higher and more sustained metabolic shift from fewer larger meals, mirrors the results of a 5-6 meal per day intake.
If we flip this on its head slightly, there is evidence to suggest that Basal or Resting Metabolic Rate can become depressed during periods of fasting as the body slows internal functions to conserve energy in absence of required fuels. Without a consensus on higher meal frequency and metabolic rate shifts, it seems safe to propose that maintaining a more regular food intake will avoid the drop in metabolism (and thus calorie burning) associated with intermittent fasting.
In fact a number of experts have promoted an increased meal frequency as instrumental to maintaining dietary or nutritional plans, enabling a greater feeling of fullness and maintenance of lean muscle mass - something that is at appreciable risk with low calorie diets.
Learn body mass is actually the single largest predictor of BMR - so it is imperative that you avoid high levels of fasting that often promote the breakdown of lean muscle mass for use as fuel.
At the turn of the century a research paper looked at relationship between in-day energy deficits and body composition in sportswomen - in particular targeting elite gymnasts and runners. The findings were startling. Larger within day eating deficits were significantly correlated with higher body fat percentages, even on these slender women, lending weight to the argument a regular eating pattern is necessary for achieving desired body composition.
It allows you to get your daily protein requirement
Protein is vital to maintaining and building muscle. No surprises there. What is controversial is expert opinion of the volume of protein required and the rate of absorption, Many experts believe the human body can only digest about 30-40 grams of protein at any one time. If this is accurate the traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner regimen would deliver a maximum of 120 grams of protein per day. For many people that may not be enough.
Some experts promote the necessity of up to 0.8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight, particularly when engaged in strength training. Based on this a 200 pound guy would need to take in up to 160 grams of protein every day. By eating every 3 hours, he’ll be able to take in more protein at each of the 5-6 meals, making it easier to fulfil daily protein requirements.
While the amount of protein and rate off absorption is open to speculation, an increased protein intake and meal frequency has been associated with a reduction in abdominal fat. The US National Library of Medicine demonstrated six meals per day alongside a high protein condition was advantageous to a three times daily intake when preserving lean muscle and reducing belly fat.
Any easy way to adjust to a six meal per day plan is to add an extra meal between breakfast, lunch and dinner with a final meal in the evening. Each meal should be a similar size (between 400-500 calories - adjusted depending on your target calorie intake) and consist of a lean protein, complex carbohydrate and healthy fat.
With consistent food consumption your body will adapt to this new way of eating and will begin to understand that your next meal is just around the corner! By sticking to a 5-6 meal eating pattern you should become less likely to fall into the trap of intermittent fasting followed by binging and overeating.
It's always vital to remember that the frequency of meals, while potentially an important cog in your weight loss efforts, is not as important as what you eat. With any dietary regime you still need to tilt the energy balance in favour of expenditure over energy intake, and you must focus on healthy fat burning foods to successfully deliver your desired loss of body mass.
Let us know how you like to structure your meals? Does the mini meal approach work for you?