Meal Frequency, Nighttime Eating and “Not Eating Enough”
Nutrition headlines and top secret diets clutter your TV, newsfeed and daily conversations. Somewhere between, “I read a facebook post that said x” and “My friend did x and lost 20lbs,” there lies a shred of truth.
The truth is, the diet doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. The only thing that matters is the person who is following it. Low carb, high fat, high protein, Weight Watchers, Atkins, etc. ALL WORK IF YOU WORK.
Believe whatever other bullshit you want but the article could really end here. I am saving you a ton of time by saying close your eyes, pick one and then shut up and follow it consistently for 6 months and get back to me. Though you likely came here to read something. Hopefully you learn something new but remember that no thought will ever replace the power of action.
Here are some of the common myths I see that are holding people back:
Even though I feel like this has been beaten to death, it clearly hasn’t. I still see this idea written and talked about frequently. So here’s what you need to know.
In terms of increased meal frequency being superior for weight loss, it has been thoroughly disproven multiple times since this idea came out. Eating more often doesn’t speed up your metabolism or “work better.” I’ve written about this numerous times in the past and I tend to see that more meals = more opportunities to eat = greater chance to eat above caloric baseline.
So let’s make this easy. People love easy and bullet points are easy, so here you go.
- “In the short term, meal frequency has no major impact on energy intake or expenditure.”  So frequent meals won’t “rev” your metabolism. Though if you prefer it, then continue to do it.
- This study found that smaller, more frequent meals are not more effective in controlling blood sugar or appetite when compared to larger, less frequent meals. The larger less frequent meals actually increased metabolism and lowered appetite. 
- “We conclude that increasing MF (meal frequency) does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study.”  This compared 3 meals and 3 snacks vs. 3 meals. Total calories were the same.
- “There is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.”  Once again showing the importance of total calories.
- “The study was a randomized crossover design with two 8-wk treatment periods. During the treatment periods, subjects consumed all of the calories needed for weight maintenance in either 3 meals/d or 1 meal/d. Subjects who completed the study maintained their body weight within 2 kg of their initial weight throughout the 6-mo period.” 
- “The present study is one of the first to investigate glucose and insulin excursions in response to altered meal frequency and macronutrient composition in healthy young adults over a 12 h period. Our primary finding is that consumption of 6 frequent meals in 12 h resulted in higher blood glucose levels over the course of the day than the consumption of 3 meals, although there was no difference in the insulin response between these two conditions”  More frequent meals lead to higher levels of blood sugar which negates the old myth that it “controls” blood sugar.
- “When humans switch from eating three full meals per day to an IER diet, such as one moderate size meal every other day or only 500–600 calories 2 d/wk, they exhibit robust changes in energy metabolism characterized by increased insulin sensitivity, reduced levels of insulin and leptin, mobilization of fatty acids, and elevation of ketone levels.”  Intermittent Fasting for the win.
My Advice: My long-term goals with nutrition clients are to get them to a place where they know their body, know how it responds to calories/macronutrients, have control over their hunger and have found an eating pattern that works for them. If 6 meals suits you and you are making progress, no need to mess with it.
Through intermittent fasting and proper dieting, I believe we can get back to “eating when hungry” rather than being tied to a clock and fridge all the time. Eating is awesome and nobody loves food more than I do, but not having to obsess over when I eat allows me to focus on shit that actually matters in life.
I highly suggest you skim through my series on Intermittent Fasting below
Excessive Nighttime Eating
Remember when every doctor who thought you needed to lose weight told you not to eat past 6pm? Remember when newer diets emerged and recommended you eat more of your calories at night? Or even better when you were told that eating any carbs past 6pm would go straight to fat? This is why things are so confusing for the average person.
- Why did doctors tell people to stop eating past 6? Quite frankly because most people eat mindlessly at night and by simply shortening the window you can eat in, you are more likely to eat less calories.
- Why did more recent diets suggest you eat later at night? These diets typically recommended fasting or under-eating during the day and then having larger meals at night. Once again, shortening the window that you are stuffing your face.
- Carbs past 6? Carbohydrates are incredible as an energy source for high intense activity. Most people are intensely watching tv on their ass at night so the rationale was, less activity at night calls for less food/carbohydrates. Which once again brings us back to eating less.
- What wasn’t mentioned but actually has merit is circadian rhythm disruption that occur from certain eating patterns (excessive nighttime eating).
Carbohydrates are neither good nor bad at night, they are still just a source of energy. I wrote an article that described some of the benefits of eating carbohydrates at night. I could find you research that suggests humans were mainly day time eaters and by eating when dark, we are disrupting circadian rhythm which can effect health and metabolism. 
I could likely also find those who say humans spent the day searching for food and then ate at night. However, I tend to agree that we likely ate more of our food during light hours but that’s beside the point. I do believe that more people would have success if they shortened their feeding period, whether that’s pushing breakfast later or ending eating at a certain time at night. Both require more periods of fasting vs. feasting.
My Advice: Stop majoring in the minors. I’m comfortable saying either will work because I’m not trying to sell you any sort of product or propose that I’m all knowing and my ideas are best. I personally believe it makes sense to at the very least control nighttime eating for overall circadian rhythm function.
Coaches on both sides of this argument will get results from clients. So instead of wasting more time questioning yourself, just get started. Either way, I suggest you spend more time in the fasted state for health and fat loss.
If you are struggling to control hunger at night I’d recommend finding some food choices that do a better job keeping you full. Foods high in fiber (fibrous vegetables, oatmeal), protein sources, or even coffee/tea/green tea can be helpful here. If you are looking for more of a low calorie “treat” you can break up a cookie dough Quest bar into some sugar free cool whip.
Not Eating Enough
Let me start by being as clear as possible. NO person has ever gotten fat from eating too little. Disrupt health? Lose energy? Lose Strength? Affect Hormones? Halt progress? Sure, but I repeat, an underweight person does not become overweight by “not eating enough.” You are not somehow above the law of thermodynamics, just like you can’t defy gravity. I know you’re mom told you you’re special but I promise you aren’t.
Seriously, do you know how dumb you sound when you say this? Repeat it to yourself a few times and think logically.
Here are the scientific sources that say otherwise:
[That was intentionally left blank]
So who are the people saying this? Usually what happens is someone looking to lose weight hears from a random, uneducated source that you’re not losing weight because you aren’t eating enough. You of course are thrilled to hear this because you immediately think, “yay, I’m actually being told I need to eat even more food, I knew I wasn’t eating enough!” People love confirmation bias.
Having 1 big meal and a bunch of snacks during the day doesn’t mean you aren’t eating a lot. Almost everyone I speak to underestimates how much they eat. Your perception of what’s a lot vs. a little really doesn’t matter here. The total calories going in your body doesn’t lie.
From here, you use whatever fad sparks your interest the most and usually that requires you eating a higher protein, lower fat, lower carbohydrate diet. Switching over from diet high in processed foods to one filled with mostly natural whole foods might make it feel like you are eating more because they are often lower calorie, more nutrient dense and have beneficial effects on satiety compared to other more common food choices.
The reality, however, is that you are actually eating less overall calories and adopting a healthier lifestyle thus leading to results. Also, when people diet they tend to exercise more frequently which plays a role in their early success. So it’s misleading to say, “I just had to start eating more to lose weight” when in reality, there are a host of factors at play here.
My Advice: If you are struggling to lose or gain weight, I suggest you track calories every single day for at least two weeks so you know exactly how much you’re eating vs. what you assume you are.
Losing body fat or changing your body composition is not some sort of mystery that you need endless hours scouring the internet to find the answer. Instead, you should understand that there are multiple ways to achieve your goal(s). Either find someone you trust to guide you to your goal or pick something and follow it consistently for at least 3 months. And stop believing everything you read.