In this busy world, it's often easy to dash out of the house in the morning without stopping to think about breakfast. By the time lunch rolls around, the deadline for that project is due, and thoughts of stopping to eating a meal go out the window, and instead you choose a bag of chips to hold you over. Dinner is probably the first meal of the day, and by that point, you're starving! So you choose something to eat that is quick and convenient, and probably a much larger quantity than you would normally eat. Sound familiar?
The problem with this behavior is that it is a quick recipe for weight gain. Though scientists have yet to identify the exact reason, many researchers have theorized that by eating a smaller number of large meals per day (one to two meals), the body stores more fat (5). On the other hand, research has shown an inverse relationship between body mass index (BMI) and the frequency of daily eating episodes (1). Simply stated, individuals who eat more often throughout the day weigh less.
An easy way to think about this is in terms of buying a new car. We spend hours researching the perfect car to buy: the model that looks the best, drives the smoothest, gets the best gas mileage, and most importantly, provides a reliable way to get from point A to point B. And then after we buy that car, we make sure to change the oil, fill it with gas, top off the fluids, clean it from time to time, and take care of the mechanical problems that arise. Why? Because you need your car in working condition to function in every day life.
And guess what? You need your body in working condition too. Just as you would never leave for a road trip with an empty tank of gas, you should never force your body to try to function properly without giving it the fuel it needs. Driving for eight hours with an empty tank is a one way ticket to being stranded on the side of the road. So why would you expect your body to be able to function correctly if you only feed it at the end of the day?
For years, researchers have studied the traits of individuals who have successfully lost and maintained their weight (3). The National Weight Control Registry is comprised of 4000 such individuals who each lost an average of 30 pounds and maintained the loss for at least one year. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (4) took a closer look at their habits and discovered three commonalities:
1: They Eat Breakfast
2: They Eat ~5 Times Per Day
3: They Keep Their Nutrition Habits Consistent
Truth be told, these are not ground-breaking habits, and they are also not impossible to implement. Eating breakfast is a great place to start. The word "breakfast" literally means "breaking the fast." After a night of going without food, your body needs fuel to start the day. The third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) discovered that breakfast eaters had a lower BMI than breakfast skippers, likely because eating breakfast prevents the urge to overeat later in the day (6). However, breakfast does not have to mean sitting down to an elaborate meal each morning. By simply eating a piece of fruit during your morning commute, or at your desk when you arrive at work, you are priming your body with the fuel it needs to get through the day.
The second habit of successful weight loss maintainers is eating more frequently during the day, typically in the form of three meals and two well timed snacks (2). The biological reason for this is that eating more often helps to maintain normal blood glucose levels, and prevent the feelings of extreme hunger (4). One study even found that individuals who ate at least four times during the day had a 33% lower risk of being overweight; another study found that people who eat 5-6 times per day have 5% lower average total and LDL cholesterol level (4,5). The car metaphor is a perfect example for why this makes sense: if you fail to fill up your car and try drive for many hours, you are setting yourself up for a breakdown. Similarly, if you starve your body for eight hours of the workday, you are setting yourself up for a battle between willpower and true hunger. It's probably not surprising that hunger wins, is it? Hunger is the body's way of communicating that it needs fuel, that the gas gauge is nearing empty. The simplest way to listen to your body is to eat when you're hungry, and stop when you're full.
The third successful weight loss practice is to keep nutrition habits consistent seven days per week. Successful weight maintainers who ate similarly during the week and on weekends were 1.5 times more likely to keep the weight off in the year following weight loss (7). Researchers postulate that this is due to consistently being in control; by allowing for more flexibility in eating habits on weekends, it creates a higher risk situation which may lead to lapses (7). Make your habits true habits, not just something you do a few days a week. Make every day count towards a healthier you.
1. Kant, AK. Frequency of eating occasions and weight change in NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. International Journal of Obesity 1995(19)468-474.
2. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Weight Management. JADA 2009. February 2009 (2)330-346.
3. Bachman JL, et al. Eating frequency is higher in weight loss maintainers and normal weight individuals than in over weight individuals. J Acad Nutr & Diet. 2011(111)1730-1734.
4. Ma et al. Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free living US adult population. Am J Epidemiol 2003(158):85-92.
5. Bounty ML, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: meal frequency. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2011(8)4.
6. Choo et al. The Effect of Breakfast Type on Total Daily Energy Intake and Body Mass Index: Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). J Am Coll Nutr 2003:22(4)296-302.
7. Wing, RR and Phelan, S. Long term weight loss maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr 2005(82):222S-5S.