How Often Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

The Starvation Mode Myth May Cause You to Eat Too Often

Breakfast with pancakes and hot chocolate
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If you read headlines about weight loss, you've probably noticed that many popular diets include periods of fasting. But others encourage you to eat all the time to avoid "starvation mode." This leaves many dieters wondering 'how often should I eat to lose weight?'

If you feel like you're not eating and not losing weight, it's best to avoid the headlines and turn to experts. Dr. Joel Fuhrman is the author of Eat to Live and The End of Dieting.

  His beliefs about how often you should eat to lose weight are consistent with what researchers and scientists have known about metabolism for years. And what most dieters get wrong.

How Often Should You Eat? The Starvation Mode Myth

If you eat frequently to avoid starvation mode, you might not like the news you're about to read. Many dieters misunderstand the concept of eating frequency, and it may cause your weight loss plan to fail.

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.

Some science-savvy dieters might also confuse starvation mode 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.

These people often (reasonably) complain that they are gaining weight but eating less. 

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 starvation mode and adaptive thermogenesis 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 (starvation mode) for the slower metabolism.  So dieters shouldn't necessarily use the evidence-based concept of adaptive thermogenesis to justify eating more often.  

Can You Gain Weight Without Eating?

So can you gain weight without eating all the time?  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 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 the quality of your diet—not eating frequency—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.

Sources:

Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. "Meal frequency and energy balance.." British Journal of NutritionApril 1997.

Kazunori Ohkawara, Marc-Andre Cornier, Wendy M. Kohrt, Edward L Melanson. "Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger." ObesityMarch 2013.

Rosenbaum M1, Leibel RL. " Adaptive thermogenesis in humans." International Journal of ObesityOctober 2010.

Kim S Stote, David J Baer, Karen Spears, David R Paul, G Keith Harris, William V Rumpler, Pilar Strycula, Samer S Najjar, Luigi Ferrucci, Donald K Ingram, Dan L Longo, and Mark P Mattson. "A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults." American Journal of Clinical NutritionApril 2007.

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