Is it any wonder that people eat so much and so often without thinking much about it?
After all, food is available pretty much everywhere you go, including fast food, food from supermarkets and snacks that are readily available.
We have become so conditioned to eating frequently that people actually don’t know any other eating pattern.
In fact, many people think that being hungry at all is a bad thing and will eat as soon as they feel hungry, regardless of when they last ate or what they have eaten that day.
However, this isn’t always good practice, and one of the ways of improving eating habits is an approach called intermittent fasting.
In this article, I want to address the question of, does intermittent fasting work, and I want to do this by considering facts and research, not just theories.
After all, there are literally thousands of different pieces of eating advice available online, in books and in the media, and they all contradict one another.
This makes it very difficult to know what to believe, which is why I personally say, start with the facts and the research, and move on from there.
Modern Eating Patterns
How much attention do you really pay to what, and when, you eat?
Society is fast-paced and many people find that it is a struggle to find the time to do everything they need to do, much less all the things they want to do.
Because of this, people look for easy solutions wherever they can, particularly when it comes to food.
How many times have you had takeout for dinner because it was simply too much work to cook a meal?
This is actually a very common practice, and people often find that the unhealthy, heavily processed, calorie risk foods are the easiest to access.
To make matters worse, families and individuals are moving away from eating at traditional meal times, instead choosing to eat when the opportunity presents itself, which often means that meals occur late at night.
At the same time, people tend to be too busy to engage in physical activity.
All of these factors strongly contribute to the development of obesity (1), and are likely to be a significant reason for why obesity is so prevalent among Western populations.
After all, the energy that we consume that is not used to meet our normal metabolic needs is converted to fat.
This means that we need to develop and fine tune our eating patterns around the amount of energy we use each day, rather than how often we want to eat, or how readily available food is.
One of the approaches people often take is eating small meals frequently, an approach that has been promoted as a way to lose weight for quite some time.
The problem is, this approach is nothing but myth and hype.
Realistically, eating many small meals in a day does nothing for weight loss and may even promote weight gain.
I’ll discuss why this is later in the article.
An approach that is growing in popularity in recent years is intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is essentially the opposite of frequently eating small meals, and involves either two or three larger meals in a day.
This approach focuses on the fact that the human body was designed to go without food for periods of time, which means that gaps between meals are not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, intermittent fasting, fat loss and increased energy may be factors that are all linked to one another, even though it doesn’t seem like it at first.
Intermittent Fasting: Fat Loss or Fat Gain?
Intermittent fasting is a concept that has been under a lot of debate.
Basically, there are two schools of thought.
One group of people believes that you should eat small meals and eat frequently, an approach that is sometimes known as grazing.
The idea is that doing this will stop your body going into starvation mode, will keep your metabolism working effectively and may also help you to keep to your diet.
In theory, this idea sounds wonderful, and it probably does work for some people.
However, for most people, eating frequently is not a good approach for staying healthy or for losing weight.
The thing is, the human body wasn’t built to consume food that regularly.
Regardless of whether you believe we were created or we evolved, the human blueprint is still focused on an environment where food was scarce and people would often go long periods of time without food.
The myth of grazing goes back to the 80s, and many people continue to believe that this is most effective way to lose weight.
While grazing might be a fashionable way to eat, the science backing this approach up is simply not there.
Furthermore, people are told that eating regularly is important for keeping energy levels up, but all that happens is that people increase their intake of calorie-laden snacks and unhealthy foods.
This isn’t a good approach for long-term weight loss, and the thing is, your liver is actually able to compensate for much of the energy that comes from eating infrequently.
Some studies even suggest that grazing may be a high-risk behavior and may act to contribute to weight gain (2).
This isn’t really surprising because it is very easy to eat too much when you are eating many meals within a given day.
Because of this, grazing can easily lead to lose of control over eating, resulting in weight gain (3).
Conversely, if you are only eating a few meals a day, it is harder to eat too much – although you do still have to watch how much you consume in a given meal.
In fact, people tend to find that the amount they eat goes down as the number of meals decreases, even if they aren’t intentionally reducing their food intake.
Indeed, one study found that the only effect that eating many meals a day has is to make people feel more hungry and have an increased desire to eat (4). That outcome is actually the opposite to what many people assume about grazing.
Now, we have been taught that hunger is a bad thing, but is it really?
From a weight loss perspective, hunger may be an indication that the weight loss is actually being effective.
After all, your body is going to think it needs food before it wants to burn fat because burning fat is supposed to be the last option.
Besides which, just because you have an increased desire to eat when you first start eating fewer meals a day, doesn’t mean that it will stay this way.
Realistically eating less often is just like any habit – it gets easier over time.
In fact, one study found that participants tended to feel fuller after three meals a day compared to six, when the total amount of calories per day was the same (5).
All of these factors suggest that eating small meals frequently is an ineffective tool for losing weight while intermittent fasting may be a more effective approach for weight loss and for overall health.
Additionally, if you have trouble sticking to a diet because you always feel hungry, eating frequently may well make that worse rather than better.
An alternative approach is to choose foods that will help you to feel full, such as high protein foods. This has the added benefit of helping you to eat less, often without even thinking about it.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Ideally, intermittent fasting involves breaking away from the frequent eating model our society is obsessed with, which also involves reducing snacking between meals.
This can be challenging, especially early on, because the sensation of hunger isn’t exactly appealing, and many people find it tempting to eat whenever they are hungry.
Realistically, being constantly fed is not the natural state for the human body, and the sensation of hunger isn’t actually a bad thing every so often.
One of the reasons for this is a process in the cells known as autophagy.
Autophagy occurs when we go without food for a while, and it acts to clean out waste products from the cells of the body (10).
One of the reasons that intermittent fasting is so desirable is that it provides the body with a break from the continuous spikes of blood sugar that occurs with frequent eating.
This approach has the potential to significantly promote weight loss.
Recent scientific research has linked intermittent fasting with a number of different health benefits, some cellular, some related to improved glucose tolerance and some related to other areas.
One animal study found that intermittent fasting prevented the deterioration of glucose tolerance that typically occurs in a high-calorie diet (11).
Another study reinforced these findings and suggested that intermittent fasting might provide a way to improve blood sugar regulation (12).
Research has also indicated that intermittent fasting can improve the function of the mitochondria in non-obese study participants (13).
This is a particularly important outcome, because the mitochondria play a key role in energy production within the body, suggesting that the lack of energy often associated with diet or lifestyle changes may decrease over time.
Finally, lifestyle changes that involve the reduction in calorie consumption, including intermittent fasting, can act to decrease the negative aspects of aging and increase overall lifespan (14).
Metabolism and Eating Frequency
The concept is, eating lots of small meals boosts your metabolic rate, which results in increased weight loss.
That is only part of the story.
Whenever you eat, your metabolism does increase a little bit. This happens because your body needs to use a certain amount of energy to break down food.
The more calories you are eating, the bigger the spike of metabolism, because bigger meals require more energy.
When you eat a few big meals in a day, your metabolism naturally spikes at that time, and gradually declines throughout the day.
Alternatively, if you eat many small meals, your metabolism does not peak as high and decreases faster.
This is not a better outcome.
For example, one meta-analysis found that eating a small meal results in a smaller metabolic boost, while a larger meal is associated with a larger boost. These approaches balanced out in terms of how many calories were burned (15).
Realistically, it is not possible to manipulate the body’s metabolism by meal frequency, as your metabolism is directly tied to what you are eating.
Late Night Eating
One of the most significant debates surrounding eating is whether you should eat at night.
Technically speaking, it isn’t the time that you eat that is the issue, but when you are eating compared to when you go to bed.
People debate about whether you should eat before you go to bed, or whether this is unhealthy.
This is particularly relevant for a discussion on intermittent fasting because people who are busy with work often find that the only time they have for dinner is a little bit before they go to sleep.
If you are trying to lose weight, eating too close to when you go to bed is never a good idea and if you really feel like you need to eat something, try to make it something light rather than a full meal.
One of the reasons for this is that if you go to bed on a full stomach, then this can significantly impede sleeping.
In fact, many people say that they find it harder to sleep when they have eaten not long before they went to bed.
Additionally, if you have any condition that causes heartburn or an upset stomach, eating close to bedtime can make for an uncomfortable experience, particularly as lying down often makes heartburn worse.
Eating near bedtime also throws off the fast period that traditionally occurs while you sleep and people often find that they wake up feeling full and skipping breakfast.
This isn’t a good practice because breakfast is often the meal that gives people energy to start up the day.
Another factor is that people have a tendency to snack before bed, and these snacks are often high in calories.
This means that eating at night can interfere with weight control, particularly as it is very easy to overeat snacks.
In reality, your body scarcely needs the energy from food as you are going to sleep soon.
Some studies have found that eating late in the evening is associated with an increase in weight (16).
The practice of eating at night is often clinically referred to as Night Eating Syndrome (NES) and commonly occurs within populations that struggle with obesity (17).
Exactly what impact eating late at night has on weight gain is an area still under significant debate and research, with some studies finding a significant effect, but others finding no effect whatsoever (18).
As with anything, late night eating is a balance. While it is not recommended to eat close to bedtime, some people find that they have to eat something, otherwise, they go to bed hungry, which can have negative impacts on sleep.
Some people who work long shifts, and use intermittent fasting approaches, choose to eat a large lunch and late dinner and skip lunch altogether.
A similar pattern is observed during the festival of Ramadan, where people eat a large meal at night and a light meal very early in the morning. Research has shown that this practice results in significant weight loss, even though the amount of calories consumed during Ramadan is no different than any other time (18).
In some cases, people take the approach to an even more significant extreme, choosing to eat hardly anything some days. The science behind that type of intermittent fasting is a little different, and it isn’t something that I’m going to focus on here.
At the end of the day, the most critical decision to make is not so much when you eat, but how much you eat and what you eat in the course of a day.
Likewise, the idea is to find an approach that works in with your own strengths and needs.
For some people this might be intermittent fasting, for other people, it probably won’t be.
Intermittent Fasting and the Modern Diet
I mentioned before that we live in a very fast-paced environment, and it can often be difficult to find the time to eat properly, particularly when eating well generally involves making your own meals.
Personally, I think that intermittent fasting can be very effective in this situation because it emphasizes filling and substantial meals.
The other advantage is that intermittent fasting means that you don’t have to prepare as many meals.
Some people use three meals for intermittent fasting, in which case, they tend to use the traditional meal types and times (breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Other people eat larger meals and have just two meals a day. This approach offers more of the benefits from intermittent fasting, but can also be more challenging for people to follow successfully.
Ultimately, the best approach is to take the intermittent fasting model and adapt it to your own life, working out what elements are most relevant and what are not.
Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
Like any diet, intermittent fasting is not an effective approach for everyone, but it can help some people to lose weight efficiently.
One of the most important things to take remember is that what and how much you eat is still relevant.
For example, many people find that they are tempted to eat high-calorie foods or a large amount of food when they are hungry, which undermines the whole point of intermittent fasting.
Realistically, if you want to lose weight through intermittent fasting, then you need to be very aware of the food you eat, and choose foods carefully.
Some people find that keeping a food diary can be an important step for achieving this, while others keep to specific foods and avoid others.
One good recommendation is to avoid heavily processed foods and fast foods as much as possible and focus on foods that are healthy and offer significant nutrients.
Ultimately, an effective diet is what works best for you and that you are able to stick with long-term, and this will differ for every person.
The most important piece of information to take away is that eating small meals frequently to lose weight is nothing more than a myth and it may have more negative health consequences than positive ones.