How Often Should I Eat?

Scientific evidence reveals what works best for weight loss

woman in refrigerator
Should you eat more often to lose weight?. Kactus/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Do you know how often you should eat to lose weight? Are you one of those dieters who eats every few hours to avoid starvation mode? If you are, you might want to reconsider your plan. Many of us misunderstand the idea of starvation mode, and it may cause your weight loss plan to fail.

To get the skinny on starvation mode, I talked to noted diet expert, nutrition researcher and board certified physician Dr. Joel Fuhrman.

Fuhrman is the author of Eat to Live and The End of Dieting.  His thoughts on the topic are consistent with what researchers and scientist have known about metabolism for years. And what most dieters get wrong.

What is Starvation Mode?

When dieters talk about starvation mode, they are usually referring to the effect that infrequent eating can have on your metabolism.  The commonly held belief is that if you don't eat every three hours or if you skip a meal, like breakfast, your metabolism immediately slows to preserve energy and prepare for starvation. As a result, weight loss grinds to a halt and weight gain can occur.

This popular concept of starvation mode is often confused with what researchers call "adaptive thermogenesis."  Scientific studies have confirmed that people who have successfully lost weight have a slower metabolism than their same-weight counterparts who have never dieted.

Researchers believe that the slower metabolism is an adaptation to eating fewer calories over an extended period of time.  Adaptive thermogenesis makes it harder for people who have lost weight to maintain a healthy weight.

So why is the distinction between these two similar ideas so important?  Because even though the concept of adaptive thermogenesis has been validated in clinical studies, researchers don't necessarily blame infrequent eating or skipped meals for the slower metabolism.

  So dieters shouldn't necessarily use the concept of adaptive thermogenesis to justify eating more often.  It's a different concept than starvation mode.

Does Starvation Mode Cause Weight Gain?

So does the popular idea of starvation mode really exist? And can it cause dieters to gain weight?  Dr. Fuhrman explains that eating less can have an effect on your metabolism, but not in the way that we think.  In fact, he thinks that the idea of starvation mode is "ridiculous." 

"Caloric restriction can have an effect on metabolic rate but on the rate at which you lose weight, not on whether or not you lose weight," he says.  Fuhrman says emphatically that dieters will not will not gain weight by restricting calories. "If starvation mode was a real thing," he says, "then anorexics would be fat."

In short, Fuhrman says that dieters should never try to eat more to avoid starvation mode. Snacking frequently or increasing the number of meals you eat during the day doesn't work if you want to lose weight.

"When people increase the number of eating occasions during the day, they increase body weight."

How Often Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

So what really matters if you want to lose weight?  Fuhrman believes that it is the quality of your diet - not eating frequency - that makes the difference. In The End of Dieting  he offers a scientific explanation for why we want to eat all the time.  He explains that what feels like hunger is often just our body's natural response to withdrawal from junk food.  "People get uncomfortable, that's all it is." He says that weight loss happens when we increase the amount of healthy food we consume, not the frequency of eating episodes.

So should you worry about starvation mode?  Nope.  Starvation mode doesn't make you fat.  Eating less does have an impact on your metabolism, but that is a natural and expected part of the weight loss process and it shouldn't derail your attempts to eat a healthy, calorie-restricted diet.  If you eat too often to avoid starvation mode, your weight loss plan is headed for trouble.


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