For years we have been told that eating small meals throughout the day is the key to healthy weight loss. The opposite may actually be true, studies now tell us. Eating two large meals a day is better than six small ones, to burn more calories, keep blood sugar low and lose weight quickly. Even if you eat the exact same amount of calories in the two meals versus the frequent smaller ones, you will lose more weight and lower your blood sugar with the less frequent eating habit, the research says. The key appears to be allowing time between meals and eating according to your body's biological clock, not the times designated by others.

The latest trend of intermittent fasting (IF), where you don't eat for a window of 14 to 16 hours a day, allowing your blood sugar to flatten and your body to use fat stores as fuel, is so popular in large part because it's how we often eat anyway. IF doesn't take any extra calorie counting or net-carb calculating. If you eat an early dinner and late breakfast you are likely not eating for 14 hours. Stretch that a little further and you get to 16 hours.

Before IF became popular, when we were told to eat breakfast, by health magazines and other experts, many of us who are not generally hungry when we wake up (or until later in the morning) felt that we had to force ourselves to eat something, and turned to sweet cereals, sugar and butter-laden pastries, doughy bagels with cream cheese, or other high-carb, low nutrient breakfasts that would set us up for weight gain.

Two Meals a Day Spaced Out is Optimal for Weight Loss, Studies find

While more frequent meals were believed to lower the risk of disease, there is now conflicting evidence that shows the low meal frequency (one or two meals a day) has been found to be most effective in losing weight, in a recent study. The key is to take into account the period of fasting between the two meals. "The physiological underpinning of these interconnected variables may be through internal circadian clocks," the authors wrote, "and food consumption that is asynchronous with natural circadian rhythms may exert adverse health effects and increase disease risk." Which is a fancy way of saying: Listen to your own hunger cues and eat when you want to, not at a pre-ordained time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The myth was that eating breakfast and then a series of smaller meals throughout the day would allow us to eat fewer calories overall, but that rarely happens when one starts the day with a carb-rich calorie bomb like a donut. This sugary breakfast habit then sends our blood sugar skyrocketing and plummeting, setting us up for a day of rollercoaster hunger and lagging energy that was worse than if they had not eaten anything at all until a little later in the middle of the morning when their natural hunger cues would kick in.

“If your morning meal consists of foods high in sugar with little to no fiber or protein, the up and down blood sugar triggers your body into thinking it needs more fuel,” comments registered dietitian, Lauren Armstrong. “Research has indicated a big dip in blood sugar can lead to hundred more calories eaten throughout the day.”

When you look at the evolutionary reasons for this, we likely were born to get up and forage, hunt or find our food, pick the berries and fruit, cook the small meat and eat at around noon. The body is built to easily withstand a morning of no sustenance and can make it much longer to our next meal, burning calories along the way.

Intuitive eating calls for eating when hungry, and not when you feel neutral or full.

In the study that looked at the difference in weight loss between two large meals a day versus six smaller ones, researchers asked 54 patients with type 2 diabetes (both men and women), between the ages of 30 and 70, with a BMI of between 27 and 50 and an HbA1c 6-11.8 percent to follow two different diets for 12 weeks (27 in each group). Each diet involved the same number of calories and carbs and the same macronutrient content– but one diet was spread over six meals a day and the other diet involved eating two sittings a day, for essentially what was breakfast and lunch.

Both groups lost weight but the dieters in the two meals a day lost more weight and lowered every major health marker to end up significantly healthier than those who ate essentially all day long. The findings: Eating only two meals a day reduced body weight, cholesterol levels, fasting blood sugar, and every other important health marker, more than the same caloric restriction split into six meals. These results suggest that eating two meals a day is more effective in weight loss than spreading your calories into more meals throughout the day.

Here's where following your natural diet urges makes sense. Instead of thinking that you need to eat breakfast and lunch (and skip dinner), listen to your body and eat when you're hungry. For most of us, that means mid-morning, like at 11 or 11:30 am and have an early lunch-style meal that is savory, not sweet. Eating a sweet breakfast sends blood sugar soaring and insulin crops up to tell your body to cart off unused blood sugar to be stored as fat. In many countries the first meal is protein and vegetables, nuts and fruit, whole grains and seeds, so add leftover salad to your first meal of the day, and think in terms of helping your body burn fuel without overwhelming it with added sugars.

“Adding protein, healthy fats, and fiber into your meals helps to stabilize blood sugar because they digest much slower compared to high sugar foods,” says Armstrong. “You’ll also feel full for a longer period of time and will avoid any early afternoon energy crashes.”

The second meal may be earlier than what people call dinner. It may be a sunset meal or a twilight snack. Most of us dive into the chips and dips before dinner because our natural body clock tells us that we should eat at 5 or 6 pm and then by the time we go to bed we have had ample time to digest. When dinner is late, like 8 or 9 pm that can confuse our natural diet cues and we eat to be social, not because that's when we are actually hungry.

Bottom Line: To be healthy, lose weight, and not overeat, try two meals a day and shift them to when you are hungry, not when you first wake up in the morning. If our natural hunger clock is to be trusted and listened to, then we may need new names for meals. Instead of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, perhaps we need a mid-morning meal and an evening meal. Leave the rest to your natural diet clock, and trust your body. Research is showing us we know how to eat if we just listen to ourselves.

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