Reduced Meal Frequency:Benefits and why it apparently works – by Dr. Deepak S. Hiwale

Obesity is not a sign of good health but a deteriorating one. Being obese, in turn, puts you at a greater risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and cancer. Dr. Deepak S. Hiwale’s research based article will bring into spotlight factors governing obesity and ways to tackle it.

Introduction

You’d probably find this hard to believe but empirical physicians like Galen and Hippocrates, many millennia ago, predicted the ‘epidemic’ of human obesity and the problems that it would cause 1! Despite such warnings, most cultures of the world, even to this day, have tended to look upon obesity as a sign of good health 2.

More often than not, lack of physical activity (PA) combined with overeating leads to (over-weight and) obesity. Being obese, in turn, puts you at a greater risk of
metabolic disorders like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and cancer 1-7.

Prevalence of obesity and our dietary patterns

According to NHANES, up until the end of 2010, of the adult US population (older< than 20 years), 33% were overweight, 35.7% obese and 6.3% were classified as extremely obese 8 – that makes for a staggering 75% of adults with ‘weight problems’! While those figures are from 2010, one can only imagine what the picture must be like at the end of 2012!

In other parts of the world, prevalence of obesity and overweight is quite similar to (if not more extreme than) that in the US. According to Jacob C. Seidell, obesity is as common in the UK as the US 9. Countries undergoing rapid economic growth – notably in Latin America and Asia – reflect similar figures as well 10.

As if these figures aren’t frightening enough, get a load of this – in 2010, medical bills for treating obesity and overweight individuals in the US alone was $270 billion 11;12! Add to that the costs for treating the associated ill-effects – cardiovascular disease and diabetes – and you’d understand why humanity can no longer afford to be overweight anymore.

Owing to the current ‘epidemic proportions’ (some researchers have tended to call it a pandemic, and rightly so!) of obesity and its ill-effects – our dietary patterns have come into sharp focus. Although, ‘3-meals a day’ is the norm in most geographical areas of the world, there is no scientific basis for this being the best strategy for achieving optimal human health.

In recent times, therefore, researchers have begun to question the rationale of the traditional ‘3-meals a day’ diet and wonder if reduction in the number of meals (less than 3) may prove to be beneficial in fighting obesity.

Frequent snacking or reduced meal frequency?

Most dieticians, fitness and weight-loss gurus are likely to recommend ‘6-meals-a- day’ type of diet (snacking) for weight-loss. The general perception is that smaller, frequent meals during the course of the day increases metabolic rate and is generally better for maintaining a healthier weight. However, contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific proof that ‘snacking’ bumps up your metabolism and will help you lose weight! There is some evidence that increasing the frequency of meals (snacks).

– while keeping calories constant – may affect physiological parameters favorably
- lower serum glucose, insulin and lipid levels 13;14. However, the proof in favor of reduced meal frequency in preventing metabolic diseases as well as obesity is much stronger.

In addition to the lack of evidence for its effectiveness, there are several downsides of frequent snacking. Reducing meal frequency, on the other hand, can prove to be a win-win situation for you!

Downsides of frequent snacking

  • When eaten in a non-hungry state, may cause weight gain – this is likely due to the calorie-dense nature and sugar content of the snack; these lead to decreased satiety and subsequently, increased hunger 15
  • Even if your snack was high in protein (a protein shake, for instance), it wouldn’t amount to much suppression of hunger. Consequently, the energy intake during the next meal would still be higher than after a ‘no-snack’ (or skipped meal) period 16
  • Furthermore, frequent snacking has been shown to increase the risk of developing type-2 diabetes 17

Positives of reduced meal frequency (and intermittent fasting)13;17-21

  • reduces body weight
  • may arrest the development of metabolic diseases
  • improves quality of health
  • increases the life span of the individual

Interestingly enough, the benefits of reduced food intake work independent of the number of calories consumed 18;20.

Based on these recent observations, recent trends have tended to recommended reduced meal frequency (and intermittent fasting) over frequent snacking.

Health benefits of reduced meal frequency

So what exactly are the health benefits that you can expect by reducing the number of times you eat in a day? In addition to the obvious benefits on body weight and body composition, there are some other benefits to be had. Here are some 18;22;23:

  • decreased blood insulin levels
  • decreased blood glucose levels
  • decreased blood pressure
  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased predisposition to cardiac or brain cell injury
  • enhanced immunity

Improvement in the above mentioned physiological parameters will help you prevent or reduce the severity of disorders like obesity, diabetes – type 2 and cardiovascular diseases.

Why does reducing meal frequency work?

In case, you are wondering why reducing meal frequency would work for you, have a look through some of the theories that have been proposed by researchers for the alleged benefits of reduced meal frequency:

  • Oxidative Stress Theory:

    The processes of ageing and development of ‘ageing-related diseases’ are due to oxidative stresses that our bodies are exposed to on a daily basis; the dreaded free oxygen radical (otherwise known as reactive oxygen) is responsible for these stresses.

    Reduced meal frequency and intermittent fasting tends to slow down and reduce the production of these oxygen radicals and thereby, the oxidative processes 17;19;24; hence, the reported benefits.

  • Energy Metabolism Theory:

    The Energy Metabolism Theory suggests that dietary restriction – either as reduced meal frequency or intermittent fasting – has a positive influence on calorie equation. Furthermore, it increases sensitivity to some key hormones, especially, insulin 25. And, since insulin resistance plays a key role in the development of obesity and other metabolic diseases, increased insulin sensitivity as a result of reduced meal frequency is more than likely to be of benefit.

  • Cellular Stress Response Theory: The Cellular Stress Response Theory is quite an interesting theory; it proposes that decreasing your meal frequency induces a stress response from cells. The stress response involves up-regulation of receptors and genes – this makes cells stronger so they can cope with all kinds of physiological or pathological stresses 24. The end result – a healthier you with better chances of fighting metabolic disease.

Scientific evidence for benefits of reduced meal frequency

Data from animal studies have supported the fact that reducing meal frequency can be beneficial to general health and well-being 18;26-28. Additionally, human clinical studies have also reported the benefits of reduced meal frequency 29

Also, regular consumption of breakfast while reducing the frequency of meals through the rest of the day seems to have an even bigger effect – both on obesity and disease prevention 30-32.

Take home message

Six-meals-a-day diet is history! Reducing meal frequency is the ‘in-thing’. Regular breakfast consumption while reducing the frequency of meals through the rest of the day has several positive benefits on human health:

  • improvement in body composition,
  • reduction of risk for cardiovascular-metabolic diseases, and
  • an anti-aging effect

A WORD OF CAUTION THOUGH – don’t go overboard and eat tons of calories or eat too late in the night. Another thing you need to be wary of is that this kind of diet would work best if you added some amount of training to it – short and brutal workouts like sprint intervals or Olympic lifting would work wonders!

I don’t know about you, but with an impressive ‘benefits profile’ like that, I’d be certainly tempted to give reduced meal frequency a try.

PS: This article is more relevant for those looking to lose weight and improve general well-being and health; sports-specific nutrition is a totally different ball- game!

References

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About The Author

Dr. Deepak Hiwale

Dr. Deepak specialises in Sports & Exercise Medicine. He has previously worked in the UK (with top athletes, as well as reputed personalities from the entertainment industry.... Read More..

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