Why is it that so many myths creep into our lives? There are popular fables, legends, and superstitions that get passed down from one generation to the next. As a child you may believe some of these myths until you reach adolescence and are able to rationalize some of the illogical concepts.
One tale I was always told as a child was that milk will make you grow stronger. As a short stature and fragile child I would go through periods where I would guzzle milk by the gallon. I could just picture myself as a six foot tall rugged man thanks to all of the milk that I drank as a kid.
But to this day I remain short in stature.
Milk didn't help me achieve anything extraordinary. My father told me that milk makes you grow stronger and I inherently believed him. He was a man who was much wiser than I was giving me no reason to question his judgement. I didn't take the time to do my own research and form my own opinion.
It is through experiences like these that massive fitness myths sweep the nation. When a fit friend tells you something about working out you automatically believe it to be true. Since this person is in better shape than you are, they must be correct. Many of the myths that get spread are about the time in which you eat your food. These myths consist of eating small frequent meals, intermittent fasting, and not eating late at night.
My answer to all of the nutrient timing theories are that they cannot offset the energy balance equation. If you eat more calories than you burn you will gain weight. If you eat less calories than you burn you will lose weight (Schoeller, 2009).
Small Frequent Meals
I am sure you have heard it before. "You must eat six small meals a day in order to keep your metabolism performing at an optimum rate. This is the only way you will ever be able to lose weight." I know I have heard this numerous times; from buddies at the gym to health professionals in the field.
At first I naturally believed this theory. I was young and trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible. However, as I grew older I became more skeptical. I realized that not everything I heard from my teachers and parents was exactly true. I started doing my own research and forming my own opinions.
When it came to researching how frequently a person should eat to optimize weight loss I found little data to back up what I have been hearing my whole life. At first I was frustrated and confused. Why would health professionals who have an extensive educational background in this field tell me something that was wrong?
Research shows there is not a relationship between how frequently a person eats and their body composition #broscience
I decided to do some more digging and find out why these health professionals would lie to me.
I found that since the 1960s, the theory of eating small frequent meals has been popular. People believed that there was a relationship between how frequently a person ate and their body mass. Despite having reasonable evidence discussing the unimportance of meal frequency, the theory remains strong today (Bellisle et al., 2007). People are convinced that grazing throughout the day keeps the metabolism performing at an optimal level. When the body goes through periods of fasting, the metabolism declines, which is not efficient for burning fat (Fábry et al., 1964).
These misconceptions stem from poorly conducted studies. In 1964 a commonly referenced study was published showing that eating infrequently has negative effects on body composition. This study, among others, showed that participants who ate four to eight meals daily lost more weight than the participants who ate two meals daily. Looking back at these studies, it is easy to find the common flaws that they contain. The studies did not have proper control of the participant’s diets. The participants were free to live their daily lives as long as they met with the doctors and discussed the experiment (Bellisle et al., 2007). One of the hardest components of a fitness study is having proper adherence to the program. It should not be taken for granted that the participants will comply with their diet or training. In fact, it has been proven that overweight people tend to underreport what they are consuming (Prentice et al., 1986). Not knowing how much food each participant consumed is one way the studies were flawed.
Far more superior studies have surfaced that contradict the findings found in these past studies. A twenty-four hour energy expenditure experiment that was conducted over the course of four weeks found no difference in the thermogenic effect of eating frequent meals or eating infrequent meals. The thermogenic effect of food is how much energy, or Calories, are used to digest food (Verboeket-van de Venne & Westerterp, 1963). This is due to the fact that although ingesting frequent meals keeps the metabolism going at a steady rate, ingesting large amounts of food spikes the metabolism. The net result is that the metabolism will burn the same amount of Calories no matter how the food is spaced out (Cameron et al., 2009).
This gave me closure as I realized that the nutritionists did not lie to me. They studied research from a different time period that drew different conclusions. Research is always improving and I have no doubt in my mind that some of the things I believe today will change in the years to come.
I know I will get some things wrong about general fitness. Research keeps evolving #wisdom #imnotperfect
Even though eating frequent meals throughout the day is not a magical solution to weight loss, it is applicable to many people. If you are a person who struggles feeling full, than ingesting frequent meals may aid in weight loss. By feeling full throughout the day, you may avoid binging at times when you are hungry. Another type of person who may benefit from this is someone eating a large amount of food in a day. If you eat 3000 kilocalories a day, consuming three 1000 kilocalorie meals may leave you feeling bloated. You may do better spacing out your meals in six 500 kilocalorie increments.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the theory of intermittent fasting. Instead of spacing out meals at regular time intervals, intermittent fasting recommends eating in one small feeding window. The most common protocol is fasting for sixteen hours and eating for eight hours in a given day.
This theory was not so fast to fool me. I didn't hear about it until later in my life when I had already started to challenge how not everything you hear is true. Plus, I already understood the energy balance equation and knew that nutrient timing wasn't super important. Still I was curious why it was getting so much attention.
What I found surprised me. I was able to trace intermittent fasting back to the early 1900s when multiple studies found that periods of fasting in animals produced a greater growth rate than constantly fed animals (Morgulis, 1913). Later on, in the 1970s more studies were conducted to show that fasting may prolong a person’s lifespan (Kendrick, 1973). More recent studies conducted try to examine whether intermittent fasting can positively affect cancer or diabetes patients (Thomas et al., 2010). So, while there is a great deal of research for the potential medical use of intermittent fasting, the use of intermittent fasting for weight loss has stemmed from little research.
In fact, there have been multiple studies to show that there is no relation between fat loss and intermittent fasting. In 2015 a research experiment was conducted to investigate the body compositional effects of intermittent fasting. This was an eight week study where the first group performed resistance training and was allowed to eat at any time throughout the day. The second group also performed resistance training but was only allowed to eat during one four hour period within the day. At the end of the study, no significant reduction in body fat was found in either group (Tinsley et al., 2015).
Even though intermittent fasting may not be the golden ticket for weight loss, it may benefit a few groups of people. If you have no appetite in the morning and feel sick when you force yourself to eat, you may benefit from skipping breakfast altogether. Likewise, if you are cutting Calories but are use to eating big meals, intermittent fasting may benefit you. Instead of reducing the portions of your meals, you can skip one meal and eat two large meals. Just remember to make sure that your caloric intake still reaches your target number.
There is also the need for additional studies to be conducted on the effects of intermittent fasting on the different diseases discussed prior. For example, it has been shown that intermittent fasting can improve insulin sensitivity, but it does not affect fasting glucose levels. For this reason, intermittent fasting may benefit patients with diabetes. More research is needed to discover the effects intermittent fasting has on human life span, human growth hormone, and decreasing the risk of developing cancer (Varady & Hellerstein, 2007).
Don't Eat At Night
“You can’t eat after 8:00pm! Your body is about to go to sleep and therefore will store all the food you eat as fat!” This is a theory that I have always heard but did not put too much thought into. I loved eating food at night. It was a great time to snack on some pretzels or treat myself to ice cream. Plus I was a scrawny kid trying to gain weight and wasn't too concerned with putting on a little fat.
As I grew older I realized that not everyone had this relaxed attitude about nighttime eating. They were told that it was bad to eat after 8:00pm and therefore stopped eating after 8:00pm at night.
Again, I grew older and began to challenge the theories that I was taught. When observing the literature on this topic I found a commonly referenced research project that took place at New York Hospital. This study investigating the eating patterns of emotionally disturbed obese patients. This was an excellent study that I enjoyed reading, but has been unfortunately misinterpreted by many. The participants being studied all suffered from some sort of emotional difficulty. Many of the patients had developed an unhealthy relationship with food due to their anxiety. They would go through long periods of fasting during the day and then start to binge at night. One of the participants being studied reported that she would awake feeling anxious and hungry; “At such times she would eat a pint of ice cream, drink a bottle of Pepsi Cola and, temporarily sated, fall asleep for another hour before the cycle was repeated” (Stunkard et al., 1955). In a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream there is 1,160 kilocalories (Sugar, 2010). If the participant were to do this every day in one week, she would consume an additional 8,120 kilocalories over the course of the week. It is not that eating late at night caused this participant to gain weight; it is the fact that she developed a binge-starve eating disorder that caused her to consume a caloric surplus.
To this day, more articles continue to come out concluding that nighttime eating is linked to obesity. While it is a valid argument that nighttime eating and nocturnal eating are characteristics common in the obese population, the conclusions that people draw from these studies are incorrect (Cerú-Björk et al., 2001). A recent literature review at Florida State University demonstrated the flaws in many of these studies and also noted studies that showed body compositional benefits to nighttime eating (Kinsey & Ormsbee, 2015). In reality, eating before bedtime relates back to our lovely energy balance equation. If a late night meal helps you meet your caloric needs for the day, you’re not going to gain any excess fat.
In defense of not eating late at night, I will say that nighttime is when you are tired and your willpower is at a low point. It is much easier and more rewarding to whip out a bowl of ice cream than it is to cook a nutritious snack. Also, many people choose to watch television as a way to unwind at night before bedtime. It has been shown that people who eat in front of the television tend to eat less mindfully which causes them to eat larger portions, typically higher in sugar and fat (Robinson et al., 2013).
Numerous theories have spread throughout the fitness industry and will continue to spread throughout the fitness industry. Many of these secrets and tricks are going to relate to the time in which you eat your foods. While there are things that do make a difference in a general fitness program, nutrient timing will be at the bottom of your list, while the energy balance equation will be at the top of your list. It should be noted that some of the strategies presented in the diets will benefit some people. Playing around and experimenting to some degree is not a bad idea. Who knows, one of these strategies may benefit you.
Just know that at then of the day you are not at any advantage compared to other nutrient timing strategies. Just like how genetics are the only thing that would have helped me grow taller, the energy balance equation is the only thing that will help you gain or lose weight. The ultimate goal is to find what works for you and what you can consistently do.
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