Okay, so I was scrolling through blog stats (yeah, I know, with all the work I have to do…but you know, I needed a break) and I’ve noticed that there are a few topics that are CONSTANTLY searched, and from which I get more random hits than any other. They are:
- Do Stresstabs work?
- Getting smaller calves
- Eating several small meals a day
I’ve already written a brief post on Stresstabs, (I lovelovelove them, BTW) and I’ll talk about calves later (for what it’s worth, because the answer is and always will be ‘eat right and exercise’ with an emphasis on the ‘eat right’) and I do have a brief post linking to a great article on eating several small meals. But I thought it might be helpful to post something about my own experience with several small meals.
First, I have been eating this way – six meals a day – for about two years now. I started doing it (of course) to lose weight. The idea behind it is, you figure out how many calories you need to take in to lose weight and then you split those calories more or less evenly among your six meals. What that means for me is that I shoot for about 220 – 250 calories per meal, give or take. That amount will vary with your height, weight, gender and daily activity. (I will caution you not to drop them too far – you will stop losing and you will totally feel like crap. It’s just not a good idea.)
I have always had a habit (call it bad or good) of eating mindlessly. I would eat at my desk, while I read, while I watched TV…you name it. Not from hunger, but because it was just a habit. I was always snacking. Now, that is not an inherently bad thing. It was the fact that (a) I was eating unhealthy things; and (b) I was also eating three “normal-sized” meals a day; that caused me to put on an enormous amount of weight.
So I’ve taken that “problem” and turned it into a positive. I eat breakfast at a little after 6. Usually, it’s a piece of fruit or a small glass of juice, a whole-grain carb like two slices of wheat bread with Smart Balance or an Eggo Nutri-Grain waffle, and either two slices of low-sodium bacon or one or two turkey sausage links. Then, at around 9:30 or 10, it’s time for a “morning snack”. (It’s easier to think in terms of meals and snacks because that’s the way our culture runs, but in actuality they’re roughly the same size.) That’s usually a piece of fruit and some form of protein, usually cheese or peanut butter or nuts. It should also contain some good fats. Nuts are a great source of good fats, as are fish, flax seed, and spreads like Smart Balance that have Omega-3s in the formulation.
Lunch is around 12 or 12:30, and it’s generally a sandwich with low-sodium deli meat – chicken, turkey or ham – on whole wheat bread. (I buy “light” wheat bread, so it’s about 40 calories a slice.) I may add a slice of 2% cheese, or I may have a 4-oz carton of yogurt. I add veggies, like baby carrots, celery, broccoli, or cherry tomatoes, as well. Or I may have a salad. So there’s protein, complex carbs, and the all important veggies.
Afternoon snack is at about 3:30 – I try to push it as late in the day as I can, so I’m not starving by dinner time, because we eat a little late. This mimics morning snack, but it’s veggies instead of fruit, with a protein/fat mix, generally yogurt. Yogurt doesn’t have a lot of protein, but calories generally permit me to add some nuts to this snack also. Dinner, which generally is around 6:30, is whatever I’m making for the family, portioned to meet my calorie needs. If I’m low on calories, I may eat a little more, or a little less if I’m high (on calories. ON CALORIES). Again, it’s generally protein, a small amount of carbs, and lots of veggies.
And then I do the unthinkable – I have an evening snack. Every. Single. Night. You will hear varying advice on this – most “diets” and weight-loss advisers will tell you not to eat after 6, or 7, or 8, or whatever time they have decided is the cutoff. Personally, I have found that if I eat an evening snack, I do not experience bedtime hunger; I don’t wake up at night hungry; and I have more energy to exercise. This is important for me, because I exercise in the evenings. Evening snack is generally something a little more indulgent-feeling like sugar-free pudding or ice cream, paired again with a protein like nuts or cheese. I am all about the protein, folks. That doesn’t mean I eliminate carbs – I don’t eliminate any food category, because I don’t believe that’s viable in the long-term. But I do wholeheartedly embrace the importance of protein. And the “indulgent” item feels like dessert. So I feel more “normal”. 🙂
So that’s how it works. Now, here’s what it does. (See the Bray Fitness link above for a great illustration of why it does what it does.)
First, and probably most importantly in my case, I am always eating. So I don’t get hungry, unless and until it’s time to eat. You could literally set a clock by when my stomach starts growling – see the above times. 🙂 I also never feel deprived, or feel the need to eat out of boredom. Because chances are, by the time I have time to get bored, it’s already time to eat. And I’m not starving myself. I never, ever feel like I’m “on a diet” – because I’m not. The food varies from day to day, and it’s all stuff I like, and I’m not eliminating things wholesale. I’ve just changed the way I eat.
In order for this aspect to work, however, you really should plan your meals. Don’t say, “Oh, it’s been three hours, time to go grab a snack,” and then go stand in front of the refrigerator looking at the kids’ pizza rolls and chicken nuggets. Have things on hand that are designated for morning snacks, evening snacks, lunches, etc. It’s obviously better to go with fresh, whole foods and avoid processed crap, but a Healthy Choice meal once in a while isn’t going to hurt you. Yes, this involves a lot of thought at first, but within just a few weeks it becomes a habit that requires very little thought. You will find that you know instinctively what you should be eating, and you’ve learned about how much. (At first, though, measure. Always measure.) And that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? To make healthy eating instinctive?
Secondly, my metabolism never shuts down. I never, ever, get that “afternoon slump”. And by eating the evening snack and exercising in the evening, I have found that even at night, I stay steady. I wake up with more energy, instead of waking up with low blood sugar, shaking and weak and nauseous (the way I did before), and I actually do require a little less sleep. Most importantly, my body knows that it’s never going to be in a “famine” state, so it doesn’t hold on to those calories. It burns them, which means (a) I lose weight; and (b) I have more energy, all the time. (b) is probably even more important to me than (a), to be honest.
Thirdly, as I mentioned, my blood sugar stays steady. I don’t have the ups and downs I used to have all the time. This is great even if you don’t have blood sugar issues, because changes in insulin levels will absolutely prompt your body to store fat. You don’t want that.
Lastly, it gives structure and focus to my eating. I no longer eat mindlessly. I don’t sit down with a bag of chips and a plate of chocolate chip cookies to watch So You Think You Can Dance, and then by the first commercial wonder where all the food went. I don’t load up on a week’s worth of snack food that I then devour in two days. I know what I’m eating and when, and most importantly I know why. Food is fuel. I am consuming it for a specific purpose – to give my body the strength and energy to get through all that I demand of it in a day’s time, which is a lot.
That most emphatically does not mean that I don’t enjoy eating. I do. Eating is something I am never going to relegate to the category of “merely necessary”. I choose foods I like, and I combine them in ways that allow me to get the maximum enjoyment out of that small meal.
No lifestyle change is a good and effective one if you can’t do it forever. To really change means you don’t go back to the old way. You stay with the “new normal” forever. This is something I can do forever, because it works for me. As a bonus, not only am I healthier, I am also 50 pounds lighter, and still heading downward. And the great part is that when I do reach my weight loss goal – which I now know will happen – I don’t have to change the way or the things I eat. I’ll just adjust my calories upward, so I’m eating a little more of the same things. And that works for me, because I’m eating things I like and I’m not completely eliminating anything that I love.
That’s another important point – don’t forbid yourself foods. If you have a trigger food that you simply cannot eat without going nuts, yes, you probably need to keep it out of your house. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have it if you come across it in an outside situation, like a party. You just need to know and accept that you will never actually go and buy that food again, and that one binge is, in the end, not going to make a darn bit of difference. Because it’s true – it won’t.
If there are foods that are bad for you that you love, but they don’t trigger a binge, then let yourself have them every once in a while. If you can build them into your daily calories without seriously compromising nutrition, do so. And if you can’t – giving yourself a treat every now and again is good for you. It really is. Because remember, this isn’t “just till you lose weight” – this is forever. And you are NOT going to live without treats forever. (Really, who would want to?) [This sort of ignores the concept of carb-induced cravings and binges, I admit – but if you suffer from those, then simple carbs are trigger foods. You really do have to avoid them.]
One last pointer, and then I’ll shut up. Water. There is no substitute for it. A final great thing about eating six meals a day is that each meal is a reminder to drink a glass or bottle of water. If you drink an 8-to-10 ounce glass of water with each of your six meals, you’ve pretty much met your water requirement. If you are exercising a lot, you need more, of course, but it’s not that hard to drink a little extra between meals.
There are lots of other tips I could give, like prepacking your snack items and planning meals, but that’s not really what this post is about. Hit me up in the comments (as MizFit would say!) if you want more or if you want my opinions on carb-induced cravings and binges, as mentioned above, but I really wanted to give you the skinny (hah!) on the small meals.
Questions? Comments? Random observations on the state of the universe? Let me have ’em. (Well, as long as you’re polite, anyway.) 🙂