How Often Should I Eat?

Many people ask themselves this question, and my Life Plan answers that for you.

The only way to lose body fat is to achieve a caloric deficit by decreasing your intake of food and by burning more calories through exercise. Exercise is, by far, the best way to achieve a caloric deficit because it does not trigger the starvation response, it increases metabolic rate, it increases all of the fat-burning enzymes and hormones, it targets body fat rather than muscle tissue for energy sources, and it increases the sensitivity of all cells to insulin so that carbohydrates are burned for energy rather than being stored as body fat.

Scientific studies continue to reinforce the notion that the best way to eat if you want to get rid of body fat, gain muscle, reduce your risks for heart disease and other serious degenerative diseases, and not feel old is to eat five small, balanced meals every day.

When your body is presented with too much fuel at any given meal, it will store it as body fat for later use. And, if you continue to take in too many calories at each meal, your body will never learn how to access this stored fuel, and body fat will continue to accumulate in your body.

Instead of eating the traditional three square meals a day, you need to trick your body by eating low-calorie meals (200–300 calories each) every few hours. This constant feeding technique forces your body to process foods as you eat them, using these same calories for energy before they can build up as fat. This technique is the single most important nutritional concept for ultimate leanness and healthy aging: I learned it from bodybuilders who knew this decade before the nutrition and medical world figured it out.

If your body doesn’t get the fuel it needs, it will begin the process of catabolism: breaking down muscle tissue and converting it into glucose, the body’s ultimate fuel, so that it can continue to carry out your bodily functions. Eating small, frequent meals not only prevents catabolism, you will also feel less hungry throughout the day and will need fewer calories at each meal to satisfy your hunger. Best of all, you’ll have more energy to perform better during your workouts, and you will drop body fat like never before.

The whole idea of eating more often to lose weight is one of the toughest concepts for me to get across to my patients. I know that it seems counterintuitive that you can lose weight by eating more often. I’ve got to admit, it took me a long time to really believe it works. But it really does. Once your body gets used to eating every three to four hours you literally become a fat-burning machine. The key is to not give it more calories than it needs at any one time. When I eat one of my small 300-calorie meals, my body literally gets hot and my energy levels increase.

When you eat frequent small meals you also avoid a common problem with most diets—caloric restriction. When people severely restrict their daily caloric intake their body rapidly goes into a starvation mode. When this happens, your basal metabolic rate begins to slow down. With severe caloric restriction, your resting metabolic rate can drop by as much as 40 to 50 percent.

Next, you begin metabolizing muscle tissue, converting it into glucose in order to preserve fat stores—that’s right, all your hard-earned muscle starts disappearing. And, as if all of this isn’t bad enough, the activity of fat-storing enzymes increases and your fat-burning enzymes decrease so that you become very efficient at storing body fat.

Your appetite and cravings begin to skyrocket. If you have the willpower to resist these temptations, it won’t be very long before lethargy, fatigue, and a total loss of desire to train take over, and your entire program will be sabotaged. The end result is always more fat and less muscle than you had when you started.

There is absolutely nothing that you can do to prevent this from happening except to never allow your caloric intakes to drop below 1,200 to 1,500 calories each day. This will ensure a one- to two-pound weight loss per week, which the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends as a safe level for men that ensures mostly fat loss. The more slowly you lose weight the easier it is to hold on to your lean muscle mass and take the fat off. More important, the slower you go, the more likely it will be that you don’t put the fat back on.