Elizabeth Walling from http://www.livingthenourishedlife.com/ and myself decided to get a little fancy on you guys and do a little Q and A on meal frequency and intermittent fasting. As many of you know, there is fierce debate over what constitutes the ideal meal frequency for health, muscle building, metabolism, fat loss, and more. In the past, it was believed by virtually anyone and everyone that 5-7 meals per day was the only sensible way to eat if you wanted to be a lean and ripped beast. Hofmekler, Berkhan, Pilon (shown below) and others have issued formidable challenges to this dogma in recent years.
But as we have all discovered in many long-winded rounds in the comments section, intermittent fasting and reduced meal frequency – while very effective for blunting appetite and dropping fat, isn’t necessarily a happily-ever-after. Here’s some lively discussion on it, and why no blanket statements can be made about high vs. low meal frequency for everyone.
Elizabeth: Mainstream advice says we need to eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day to keep our insulin levels low and keep our metabolism going strong. Is this true?
Matt: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is mainstream advice, but there are many who recommend eating small, frequent meals (nibbling) vs. eating less frequent, much larger meals. As you know, there are endless ways to investigate the matter. Roger Williams, in Nutrition Against Disease, spoke candidly about the superiority of nibbling long-term in body composition (hypothesizing that it takes about 3 years in humans for low meal frequency to start adding extra body fat). This was found to be true in a wide variety of animal subjects of different species eating equal amounts of calories, and it makes sense on some level. There is not much impetus for the body to store anything extra if food is being supplied very often.
Going without food for 24 hours at a time definitely encourages the body to store fat when it encounters food, but it encourages fat burning during the long window without food as well. Likewise, a big meal once or twice per day will spike insulin through the roof, but will hold insulin lower throughout the rest of the day compared to someone eating 5-6 smaller meals.
In the animal kingdom it doesn’t seem to matter whether you graze all day like a horse, or eat a couple times a week like a lion or tiger. I suspect that, all things considered, it really doesn’t matter, and is up to a person’s personal preferences and what he or she has found to be the most effective, practical, and comforting for them. I would think someone with really shot adrenals would fare much better with small, frequent meals. Long periods without food cause a big rise in catecholamines (which has its advantages, don’t get me wrong), but this rise in catecholamines can do damage. Like anything, both approaches have benefits and drawbacks, so I guess the main thing is to not get blindsided by one theory vs. the other, but hold on to your own decision-making power – and make your decision based on your own biofeedback.
Elizabeth: Improving leptin sensitivity and insulin sensitivity appear to be top priorities if you want better health and body composition. I’ve heard from some experts that decreasing meal frequency helps improve leptin and insulin sensitivity. Do you think small, frequent meals contribute to leptin resistance and insulin resistance, or are there other factors that we should be more concerned about?
Matt: I doubt that meal frequency is the primary driver of leptin and insulin resistance as someone like Byron Richards (left), author of The Leptin Diet, suggests. If you look at any truly obese person with severe leptin and insulin resistance, you are unlikely to see someone who eats small, frequent meals – or hops out of bed in the morning to eat a huge breakfast to end the fasting period. In fact, you are more likely to see a breakfast skipper that eats 75% of their calories between 6pm and midnight.
In the short-term, I can see how a rise in catecholamines (adrenal hormones) from a long fasting period could increase leptin – and why so many intermittent fasters are witnessing a huge drop in appetite from it with great fat loss. But remember that ephedra and methamphetamine have the same properties – increasing fat burning and blunting appetite. Hell yes those worked amazingly well in the short-term, but did amazing amounts of damage to the adrenal glands of those consuming them over time.
Just because something appears to work in the short-term, even if there are oodles of studies to validate it, doesn’t make it the be-all, end-all. I’m sure you noticed while reading Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat on intermittent fasting that most of the studies supporting fasting were based on hormonal changes seen within 72 hours of fasting. That is not good enough to prove anything. The human body is an equilibrium machine, and repeated spikes in adrenal hormones from going long periods without food – while creating miracles in the short-term – are still fraught with Catch-22’s. The body’s adrenal glands can become fatigued, and/or adrenergic receptors (adrenal hormone receptors) can start to shut down so that your body becomes less responsive to your adrenal hormones, and the appetite-blunting/fat-burning effect of intermittent fasting and decreased meal frequency can vanish and be replaced by rebound. Not trying to scare anyone away from decreased meal frequency. I’ve had some success with it myself (3 meals per day with no snacking whatsoever), and it is incredibly more practical than eating 6 times per day. Just playing devil’s advocate – keeping the great benefits attributed to it, such as its impact on leptin and insulin, in perspective.
Elizabeth: Do you think there’s a safer way to use intermittent fasting for someone who is concerned about adrenal health? I personally was thinking that Brad Pilon’s plan was somewhat more reasonable simply because you aren’t fasting every day – just two days a week, in fact. Other days you would eat normally with your preferred meal frequency. Do you think that is enough to offset some of the possible risks involved? Can someone with adrenal concerns use intermittent fasting safely?
Matt: Good question. I think Pilon’s approach is pretty good, but people must remember it’s not a case of the more the better. Pilon does allow people to restore normal eating habits and give the adrenals a break. Thus, you have an opportunity there to lose a pound of fat per week and “get away with it.” Martin Berkhan of http://www.leangains.blogspot.com/ takes the opposite approach, where you fast a little each day by eating only between the hours of say, 11am to 7pm (8-hour feeding window). This he counters with other very wise approaches, such as huge post-workout feasts and short windows in which you eat way more calories than you are used to. This allows the body, during any given week, to experience short windows of losing body fat (with high catecholamines) AND periods of muscle growth and recovery in which catecholamines are low and in recovery. This prevents the body from adapting to constantly-elevated catecholamines, which is a beautiful thing for those looking to avoid the yo-yo scenario. He seems to have gotten it down to a science where when he eats too little he loses fat and no muscle – and when he eats too much he gains muscle but no fat. Thus, over the course of weeks and months, he gains muscle, loses lots of fat, and has no negative metabolic adaptation – such as having his sex drive crash, his energy levels plummet, constant coldness, poor workout performance, increased appetite, and so on.
Elizabeth: So, it’s all about balance and staying away from that chronic stress of constantly elevated catecholamines. How do you suggest coming to a personal decision about meal frequency? What factors should someone take into consideration? Do you have any suggestions for how an individual can determine what works best for them?
Matt: “Constantly elevated catecholamines” is an excellent phrase. Pardon me while I go off on a huge geekazoid tangent on this one. The trick is to get the fat-burning, metabolism-boosting, hunger-regulating effects of the catecholamines, but do so in a way that doesn’t allow the body to adjust to a chronic, steady-state of elevated catecholamines. That’s the biggest mistake that people make in dieting, with low-carb dieting in particular.
Low-carb diets, for example, raise catecholamines really well, suppress your appetite, burn fat like crazy with no lean losses, and can make you feel tremendously amazing with great mental focus and energy. But people often get seduced by these great feelings, and with the panacea attributed to low-carb diets that’s given by low-carb and now Paleo authors and health educators, people do low-carb diets until they hit the plateau of all plateaus and feel like absolute crap – often with health problems like food allergies, horrendous athletic performance, insomnia, and digestive problems – not to mention an uncanny ability to gain weight at the end of that rainbow.
This could all be called “negative metabolic adaptation” to anything that keeps catecholamines constantly elevated, which includes low-calorie diets with no reprieve or “re-feed,” low-carb diets without “carb cycling” (eating a big, high-carbohydrate meal once every 2-3 days), overexercising (particularly long-duration cardio without enough rest days), and so forth.
So to answer your question about choosing for yourself what determines a good approach to meal frequency, you really have to take the rest of your lifestyle, diet, and exercise habits into account to decide.
Let’s say there are 5 ways to elevate catecholamines:
1) Going long periods between meals
2) Eating meals with less than 30 grams of carbohydrates
3) Cutting calories
And there are 5 ways to lower catecholamines:
3) High-carbohydrate meals
4) Excessive calorie intake
5) Eating frequent, small meals
From this list, the best way to lose the most fat in the shortest period of time would be to eat a very low-carb, low-calorie diet combined with fasting and lots of exercise. But this is adrenal suicide. Note that fitness competitors often do this a few weeks prior to a show – but at great cost.
For long-term success, and without undermining your health, you need balance between those two lists. If you want to take advantage of dropping carbohydrates, do so with eating big carbohydrate feasts once every three days. This is the premise of Rob Faigin’s (left) Natural Hormone Enhancement program, which is light years ahead of any standard low-carb diet.
If you want to take advantage of intermittent fasting, don’t pair this with 2 hours of cardio 5 times per week. Instead, you’d be much better off pairing IF with only 2, 1-hour anaerobic workouts (weightlifting) like what you see Martin Berkhan practicing.
If you want to eat two large meals per day, and don’t want to be bothered with the headache of the 6 meal per day plan, great! But these meals should contain lots of healthy, unrefined carbohydrates.
So, the moral of the story is to be patient, methodical, and wise about losing weight. You can’t sprint for the finish or the body will make adjustments that create an impenetrable wall between you and your weight loss goals (to say nothing of the catastrophic impact this can have on your health as well).
And your question about helping a person to determine what is right for them is perhaps even more complicated!!! Ha!
The simplest answer to that is this:
If you suspect any kind of adrenal problems, you better try to rehabilitate yourself before pursuing weight loss. That comes by doing a lot of what – in list #2 – helps to lower catecholamines. That is the basic premise of the rehabilitative strategy that I’ve created in a free eBook online that you can get at http://www.180degreehealth.com/
If your adrenal glands are healthy, you’ll respond to many things in the list of what raises catecholamines with a decline in appetite, a rise in energy levels and mental focus, very quick fat loss with no lean losses, and so forth. If that is what you experience, DO NOT get carried away with it. Take action to lower catecholamines at some point each week, preferably with rest and eating a lot of food – particularly carbohydrates. In other words, take 1 step back for every 2 steps forward.
As for me, I’m kinda done fooling around with catecholamines. I eat until I am full, when I am hungry (usually 3 times per day evenly spaced, starting with an early breakfast), and eat a very high-carbohydrate diet with very little cardio-style exercise. I did start out earlier this summer doing a lot of hiking, but I could immediately feel the negative consequences of it. Instead, my current focus is doing a couple of very high-intensity, full-body weightlifting/bodyweight exercise sessions once every 3-4 days. This, in and of itself, has great potential to force the body to adapt by increasing anabolic (muscle-building) hormones and decrease body fat. You won’t catch a sprinter or gymnast – arguably the two types of athletes with the best muscle to body fat ratios on earth – on a treadmill or Elliptical machine. You won’t catch Martin Berkhan or legendary trainers like Scott Abel or Rachel Cosgrove near one either.
Rachel Cosgrove after getting back to high-intensity resistance exercise with no cardio whatsoever.