A Province.com article (Theory Holds No Weight), stated that eating a number of small meals a day instead of three large ones will not help one lose unwanted pounds. In essence, the authors implied that the idea of regulating appetite through such a regimen, resulting in the consumption of fewer calories, is a myth.
Being in the business for years, I know this rehash of “calories in, and calories out” can work under the right conditions. But it can also be dangerously misleading if misapplied.
The author cites obesity researcher Eric Doucet, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics as saying:
“There’s nothing out there that will convince us that eating several small meals daily will help you lose weight or control your weight.”
Really? As always, articles such as these should be read with caution as they contain a hint of truth mixed with a heavy dose of bias. I practice this disavowed “theory” day in and day out with clients and they have incredible success in the range of 50-90 pounds of weight lost.
So when speaking the truth, we have to look at all factors of this supposed “six-meal-a-day bandwagon.” Perhaps Doucet has really tried this system and it has failed him, but after reading the article, I’m not surprised. Controlled studies often fail to factor in criteria crucial for success in such a regimen. Let’s have a look at why even scientific efforts can fail us.
Criteria of a healthy diet
This 2009 study compared two groups, one which ate three meals a day and one which ate an extra three snack on top of this food intake. After eight weeks both groups lost exactly the same amount of weight. And in another study, it was found that individuals who lost weight on the six meal a day plan tended to be active.
This brings me to the amazingly obvious first point – activity is a normal (and critical) function of the human body and needed in any weight loss regimen. Any long period on inactivity requires a large reduction in calorie intake to offset what the body in motion would easily burn. This is no great mystery. Of course, when physical activity is removed from the equation, six meals a day will prove no more superior in weight loss than three meals a day for most couch potatoes.
Point two – After reviewing twenty studies, Doucet believes more frequent eating and smaller meals have no effect on hormone and metabolism levels. This leads him to conclude that the idea is a colossal failure, relegated to the shadows of the “calorie in-out” tenet.
Again, the basic premise of his theory is false. Doucet speaks only of sedentary individuals. Throwing a vigorous activity program into the mix will most definitely regulate hormone function and metabolism in a favourable way. Throwing out the baby with the bath water has always been a bad idea, but one not entirely opposed by this researcher
Point three – It’s NOT merely calories in and calories out. Traditional low-calorie diets work on restricting the calories you consume in your diet so that your calorie intake falls below calories burned throughout the day. In the short run, this can affect your insulin levels, helping convert food into energy. However, to think about obesity in such simple terms is both naïve and perhaps even meaningless. This type of argument struggle as a sin of “educated” arrogance towards energy use and storage.
For a time, of course, weight gain or loss IS determined by calories in (call it X) minus calories out (Y). The problem is that Y is a nonlinear function of X, and we know that outside factors such as exercise and food heavily influence this equation. Doucet fails entirely to mention food quality.
When we speak of calories in and out, we have to weigh whether the quality of food is such that it will have either a positive or negative effect. Low calorie “packaged” foods is NOT nutrient rich and will cause a loss of energy and extreme hunger that can test your resolve to remain on your diet. It can also cause your body to restrict its metabolism to protect its energy stores, actually preventing you from losing weight.
This brings us back to excess calories as the pivotal point in the chain of causation. Yes, a caloric deficit is a required condition for weight loss – and our focus should be on the deficit, but with a critical distinction to help avoid spinning our wheels. We can exercise more, but if we compensate by eating more, we cancel our deficit. The same applies in reverse – if we eat less, but then compensate by moving less, we again cancel our deficit. So the most important key to weight loss is “exercise more and eat smaller amounts of whole (healthy) foods more frequently.” Make sure you understand this distinction and then follow this advice.
Point four – Are all calories created equal? Is the energy from 100 calories of apples the same as from 100 calories of diet coke? Anyone should agree that this concept is RIDICULOUS! The calories from fast-food will negatively affect your blood sugar. It will also throw off your hormonal system through added chemicals, pesticides and hormones, draining you of precious daily energy.
However, if we eat better quality beef, and less sprayed and more fresh vegetables, the effect will be completely different. Digestive enzymes are released from “real food” allowing for more readily available nutrients. Our metabolic rate, which regulates hormones and balance blood sugar, is raised. We begin building healthy immunity working with the digestive system, we stop killing our liver with pesticide residues, stop raising blood sugar or get confused from the estrogenic properties of soy.
In conclusion, I’m not stating categorically that calories don’t count. In fact, they do. But if we eat whole, fibre and nutrient rich foods, rather than refined and junk foods based on being “calorie light”, we will always succeed in the long run. Then get daily exercise, sunshine, fresh air and plenty of sleep. The basic premise of the calorie argument is right, it is the application that is usually wrong. Follow my points to get it right every time.