Sunday, May 24, 2009

Meals: Three a Day or Six?

If you're like me, you probably grew up eating three meals a day. Breakfast was pretty light, lunch was a little bigger and dinner was the largest meal of the day (except for Sunday's when lunch was the biggest meal). Then several years ago I started hearing about the importance of breakfast and how it actually should be the biggest meal of the day to provide you with the needed energy for the day ahead. Around that same time, researchers were saying that dinner should be the lightest meal because there'd be no time to burn all those calories before going to bed, increasing the chance of it all going to fat.

Then about 10 years ago Jorge Cruise wrote a book called The 3-Hour Diet that really turned the diet world on its head. Cruise presented a three-point approach:
1. Eat breakfast within one hour of rising.
2. Eat every three hours.
3. Stop eating three hours before bedtime.

Cruise says that eating systematically like this increases your BMR (baseline metabolic rate), increases your energy levels, and decreases your appetite. Most nutrition experts agree that irregular eating patterns can affect weight loss, but scientifically there's not a lot a proof supporting that we're better off eating six smaller meals instead of three.

Jorge Cruise is a well-spoken, good-looking, fit, charismatic guy and I think that's part of his appeal to the masses. Plus he once was overweight and used his method to lose the weight and become one of biggest fitness gurus on the planet. So, he has some street creds with the us regular folk. Who would you rather listen to, a guy in a lab coat or Jorge? Check out the clip below that gives a 10-year overview of Cruise's success.



Most scientist aren't disputing Cruise's eating plan, they're just saying that there haven't be any studies to support his theories that eating more smaller meals increases your metabolism causing you to burn more calories. One team of nutrition researchers recently concluded that whether you eat 3 or 6 meals a day, weight loss ultimately comes down to "how much energy (or calories) is consumed as opposed to how often or how regularly one eats." Basically it comes back down to what we already knew: Calories IN = Calories BURNED. If you want to lose weight, you need to shift the equation to Calories BURNED > Calories IN. So, which ever method (3 meals or 6) helps you to eat fewer total calories at the end of the day and burn more total calories at the end of the day is the method for you.

This debate of how many meals to eat made me wonder about runners. Well as a runner, I think you need to think of your body as a machine and because you're constantly running that machine, you need to be constantly refueling. I don't eat 6 meals a day, but I do eat just about all day long. To me the key is what you're eating. I usually have a hearty breakfast of oatmeal or English muffins with peanut butter and jam. Then about midmorning I'll have a handful of almonds and sometimes even a small square of dark chocolate. For lunch I'll have something like a turkey sub from Subway with some Sun Chips. Then by mid-afternoon I'm ready for a granola bar. Dinner can be iffy with a busy family, but we try to eat healthy. Even if we pick up fast food, we try to eat grilled chicken and baked potatoes or something like that. Often I'll even have a yogurt sometime after dinner. I try not to eat anyting after 10PM though. The point is that I'm feeding my body all day with good foods for two reasons. First, I'm running a lot and I need to make sure my glycogen stores are full. Second, I've discovered that if I don't have that healthy midmorning snack, then I'll gorge myself at lunch. Same thing with the mid-afternoon snack. So listen to your body, but listen carefully. Is it a craving that's calling you or is it your body saying it's time for some fuel. A handful of almonds or a cup of yogurt is great; a Snickers bar not so much.

Runners are also different in their diet needs from the regular Joe on the street who's a non-runner. Typically runners need a diet based on a 50 percent carb, 25 percent protein, 25 percent fat ratio. For more information on the speicific diet needs of runners check out Madelyn H. Fernstrom's book The Runner's Diet (Rodale Books, 2005). Look for an upcoming post reviewing Fernstrom's book on RunnerDude's Blog. Training for a marthon? Check out Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners (Meyer & Meyer Sport, 2007). Bon App├ętit!

19 comments:

Tanya said...

I think the 6 meals a day argument is valid, IF everyone remembers that 6 meals a day means small meals. You really have to watch the calories when you eat throughout the day. You're right; the tried and true rule of calories in vs calories burned holds whether you eat one meal a day or 6. So I think of it as taking x number of daily calories and spreading them out through the day so I don't get hungry.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Tanya! I agree with you 100%! I'm not sure about Cruise's theory on more meals ramping up your metabolism, but I think by eating more throughout the day I stay more satisfied and that keeps me from over eating. And you hit the nail on the head....eating more meals doesn't mean eating more calories...and the calories you eat need to be quality calories, not empty.

HEATHER said...

mm kashi cherry dark chocolate granola bars! love them! I am a "grazer", so I can't imagine eating only 3 meals a day! I don't think I would make it between breakfast and lunch! It works for me, and i do blame my appetite on running :)

Amy said...

I was completely excited about purchasing Madelyn H. Fernstrom's book "The Runner's Diet". However, it dropped radically when I realized that there's really no room for a vegetarian in her diet. I'm intrigued by Jorge's "3-Hour Diet"...

Big fan of Nancy Clark, though!!! I recently purchased her "Sports Nutrition Guidebook". It has become quite the excellent resource for me.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Heather! I'm with you. Grazing is a good thing. LOL! And Kashi rocks!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Amy! Thanks for the heads-up on Ferstrom's book not being vegetarian friendly. I'll definitely include that in my review. I agree, Clark's book is really good.

Jeff Pickett said...

This 6 meal argument should not be an argument at all. It simply works. Consider throwing a log on the fire versus a few twigs. Which one burns up faster? So it is with your food intake. Eating 6 smaller meals allows your body to process those foods at a faster rate, ramping your metabolism and converting less to fat. I wish I could practice more of what I preach with 6 meals, so there's work for all, but it is not simply 6 meals that you eat, its what is in those meals. Ratios vary according to your activities, but eating good fats is a necessity. Omega 6 fats are much better than saturated fats. I posted myself on this a while back, but totally agree with you, Thad. http://lifeisntover.wordpress.com/2008/04/13/keep-the-fire-burning/
You gotta keep that furnace burning by a continuous toss of wood and not just 3 big logs each day.

NoMeatAthlete said...

Interesting, I've heard of the 6-meal day for a while but never of Jorge Cruise. This guy should get more recognition, because I love this way of eating. I actually don't think about numbers anymore, I just eat when I'm hungry, and it adds up to 5-6 most days. As a vegetarian, I find it especially easy to eat this way, since without meat on the plate, the natural meal size is pretty small anyway.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Jeff! Agree completely. Like your analogy. Made me think of some new sayings...LOL!!
"Just Twig It!"
"6 Twigs a Day Keeps the Fat Away"
"Out With the Logs! In With the Twigs!"

RunnerDude said...

Hey NoMeatAthlete! That's what I'm trying to teach my kids. Eat when you're hungry and not when you're having a craving. Hard to do, but we're making progress. The other day I asked my 8-yr-old to feed the dog. I looked a few minutes later in the dog bowl and it was full of shredded lettuce! I guess some of what I'm preaching is getting through. LOL!! Darned if the dog didn't eat it too!

Mark said...

Great post, encouraging anlightening!

ShutUpandRun said...

Very informative as always. I still haven't perfected my eating -I am still a creature of habit with the three meals/day thing. Dinner is still my biggest meal. I'll have to look at that.

I Run for Fun said...

Great post! I love the concept of eating every 3 hours! I have to get good about it and remember to carry healthy snacks to work everyday, instead of wolfing down a heavy lunch.

TokyoRacer said...

I have to disagree with Jeff and the six-meals-a-day-is-better folks. I am 5ft 8-1/2in, weigh 132 lbs (that is, very thin) and run about 40 miles a week. I eat a small breakfast (oatmeal with protein powder and fruit or a protein fruit milkshake), small lunch (small amount of tofu, a few raw vegetables, small piece of wheat bread with peanut butter) and a large dinner every day, no snacks. Of course, I live in Japan and my wife is Japanese, so "large" does not mean "American-size large," but that is my big meal of the day. And basically no dessert. This keeps me at 132, which is my racing weight. If I eat something before I go to bed, I will be a bit higher. If I eat snacks, I will be higher than that. (If I eat dessert, forget it.) So it seems to me that the six meals recommendation is my three meals a day, plus three snacks. So that would not work for me. I think you have to take into account the size of the person, and how much they are running (and when — I run in the afternoon). So if you are bigger than me, and running more, you can handle more food without putting on weight. But for me, and probably for many of the women readers, eating six times a day is going to be too much.
By the way, I do not like the log/twig analogy. It is not comparing equivalent amounts of energy. If a log is putting out heat all day long, you can't compare it to "a few twigs." You are going to have to constantly keep feeding twigs onto the fire all day long. Sorry, but if you are eating all day long, you will gain as much weight as if you eat one large amount.
So basically, I agree with Runnerdude: do whatever works for you; and with Tanya: if you eat six times, you have to really be careful (which is going to be difficult for most people — one handful of nuts turns into three, one granola bar turns into one chocolate granola bar plus a banana plus a big glass of juice, etc.).

RunnerDude said...

Hey ShutUpandRun! I know, it really is hard to change. I still have the regualar three meals, but I watch the portion sizes and I have my midmorning and midafternoon "snacks" as well as the after dinner one. Those aren't additional calories. So basically I've spread my calories over the day. Good luck! Happy Memorial Day!

RunnerDude said...

Hey I Run For Fun! A lot of times before lunch I'll have a handful of almonds and a small square of 70% dark chocolate. DELISH! The almonds are great for the immune system as well as having the good kind of fat you need. The dark chocolate is full of antioxidants (just make sure its dark chocolate at least 70%). If you drink a class of water with the almonds that helps the almond fibers to expand in your stomach making you feel fuller too so you won't over eat at lunch.

RunnerDude said...

Hey TokyoRacer! I'm 5'6" and 132 lbs. I agree with you in that you have to find what works for you. Everybody has a different metabolism which plays a factor in all of this too. Increased running can ramp up metabolism in most people, but I think heredity plays a big part too. So, I think the best thing is try out different eating patterns. I'm not sure that Jorge Cruise is right when he says that the timing of the food helps you burn more calories. I'm thinking more that (for me anyway) that by eating throughout the day it keeps me satisfied therefore I don't over eat from being famished after work. But TokyoRacer, I agree wholeheartedly that you still have to practice control. I eat my handful of almonds midmorning. They do have a lot of fat (the good kind) and they are great for the immune system. Been doing that for about 2 years. But, if I wasn't mindful and had 2, 3 or 4 handfuls, I'd be gaining some major weight. It really is all about discipline. 3 meals may work fine, 3 meals with snacks may work fine, 6 mini meals may work fine. I love all these questions and debate, don't you guys! Happy Memorial Day!

Running Through Life said...

The smaller meals throughout the day works for me. I seem to be eating or snaking every two to three hours.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Running Through Life! That's pretty much what I do too man. If you know what your total caloric needs for the day are it really doesn't matter how you eat them...all day long or just limit yourself to 3 meals or just one. LOL! Whatever keeps you satisfied is what works.