Food Experiments: How often should you eat?

meal timingRegular readers will know that I’ve recently looked closely at the impact meat and grain consumption has on my mind and body. Today we’re going to look at how often you should eat.

We’ll assume that the options are regular small meals, less frequent large meals or somewhere in between. Hopefully no-one is eating frequent large meals.

I received a lot of feedback on my article 5 reasons you’re not getting the fitness results you want, and without doubt the most controversial reason was you’re eating too often.

A good friend of mine who has had incredible results with his training in the past took issue, stating on my Facebook post that he put his success down to eating regular small meals to regulate his protein intake, stop his metabolism from slowing and prevent him from feeling lethargic from heavy meals.

In my initial post I should have clarified that I meant this largely from a weight loss and general health perspective, as most people I speak to and most of my clients are aiming for these goals. If you struggle to gain weight then perhaps ‘eating too infrequently’ might be the root of your inability to pack on muscle.

The reason I picked on ‘eating too often’, rather than ‘eating too much’ was because we’ve been told for years and years, without any decent evidence to support it, that:

  • You MUST eat regularly to stop starvation mode and catabolism
  • You MUST snack.
  • You MUST eat breakfast or come mid-morning you’ll be shoving cake and donuts into any available orifice

Eat more to lose weight, we’ve been told. I’ve actually seen nutritional guides with the words:

You need to eat more to lose weight. Sounds crazy, huh?

Yes, it sounds crazy. And illogical. And wrong. Because that’s what it is. Telling an obese person they need to eat more to lose weight is at best counter-productive, at worst plain dangerous.

Now this is where I really need to clarify my views. I am not necessarily saying that eating regular meals is bad or wrong. My friend got great results with this and so have many others, and it would be extremely arrogant for me to say they shouldn’t have done it this way. My huge issue is with people declaring that this is the way to do it. The best way. The only way.

The recent rise in popularity of Intermittent Fasting, an approach which I’ve been praising for a long time, pretty much proves that skipping meals or even going up to 24 hours without food can be a hugely effective and successful approach. This flies in the face of the ‘eat more to lose weight’ oxymoron.

Many people find that eating lots of small regular meals is impractical, leaves them feeling hungry and miserable and causes them to overeat without realising. Now because they’ve been told they MUST do it this way they get defeatist and down when it doesn’t work out. They then start blaming other factors such as slow metabolisms, genetics or bad karma from a past life. Cue binge eating to feel better about it.

Wouldn’t it be a lot more liberating and positive to simply tick ‘small, regular meals 6 times a day’ off the list, chalk it down to experience and celebrate learning something about yourself? Congratulations, you now know that this didn’t work for your body type or was a bad fit for your personality or schedule. Now you can try a different approach. Of course, if the small meals are working just keep it up and reap the benefits!

So I responded to my regular meal-consuming friend on facebook making the above points and finished with the line:

“My issue is with advice that says you must eat one way, or another. If eating small meals works, then do it. If eating one giant meal in the evening works, then do it”.

This prompted another good friend who works in the fitness industry to tell me that I can’t say eating one meal a day is right, we need to eat in the morning to get our bodies started and that no elite athlete could ever eat one meal a day and to do so would be detrimental to their development.

We discussed it, and I pretty much reiterated my view that you can’t give uniform, blanket approaches to people.

I mentioned the two meal approach that has worked for a huge community of people, and after flicking through the site again I found an incredible example of someone who’s eaten just one meal a day for the last 30 years. Oh, and he also happens to an elite athlete competing at the highest level in one of the most physically demanding sports around, Mixed Martial Arts. He’s 50 and looks about 30 and and is fitter than a cross between Serena Williams and Usain Bolt. Here’s his story:

Would I recommend you eat one meal a day? Probably not, but look at that guy – it would be extremely arrogant for anyone to tell him he’s wrong, or he shouldn’t be doing it his way.


I don’t want to come across as wishy-washy or indecisive in my approach to nutrition. Experimentation is key, but I want you to know why you’re experimenting and to learn from the journey, not just the end result. Therefore, I want to summarize my meal frequency approach:

If you’re truly eating real, whole foods 80-90% of the time then meal frequency is not important. We’ve established that metabolism isn’t affected by meal frequency so don’t let this myth guide your eating habits. Your very own personalized meal frequency formula should come down to these factors:

  • Fitting healthy eating around your social and work schedule
  • What meal timing and frequency allows you to control your hunger effectively, and therefore results in you eating the right things in the right amounts when you do eat
  • How practical is it for preparation: can you eat 8 quality small meals a day? Personally, I would find that harder to manage than less frequent larger meals
  • Simply how you feel when you eat large or small at different times of the day: bloated, fresh; sluggish, at peak performance etc. If you’re energy levels are great and you’re firing on all cylinders then you’re probably doing a lot right. If you’re tired, lethargic and lacking concentration or focus then you’re probably doing a lot wrong

This following point is so important that I’m going to repeat it: as long as you are truly eating the right foods most of the time then a lot of other things fall into place. A lot of people obsessing with when to eat need to first focus on the junk they’re consuming.

What I do

My eating patterns would make your average nutritionist cry. I often skip breakfast, as I recognized that most of the time I eat early it’s because food tastes good, rather than to satisfy my body’s need for energy. Some days I graze throughout the day and don’t eat any proper ‘meals’, other days I’ll go retro and have 3 square meals with no snacks. And occasionally I go 24 hours without consuming any food at all.

But most importantly I focus on eating good quality, real food most of the time. This approach works for me and my current fitness goals.

Diet Controversy

I realise diet and nutrition is as controversial as politics and religion and people get very emotional about it (avoid at dinner parties). However, I hugely welcome debate and opinions both for and against my views. My position on all things fitness, health and nutrition will change and develop, so if you can contribute to that by commenting below or contacting me I’d appreciate it.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I kindly ask you to ‘like’ our Bangkok Fitness Facebook page, ‘like’ it here and share on social networks if you feel others would benefit. Many thanks!

Big Food Experient Pt.2: A Month With No Grains

My Big Food Experiment started with a month without meat. Eager to move on, next up on the food group cull list was grains.

I’ve eaten and enjoyed grains all my life, mostly in the form of bread, cereal, flour and pasta, and more recently in the form of rice and noodles in Thailand and Asia.

20 years ago giving up ‘heart healthy grains’ would’ve been absurd, but things have changed since then.

Food enemy number one has shifted from fat to carbohydrates, and numerous charges have been filed against grains by the food police – that they promote inflammation, that they contribute to an unhealthy level of carbohydrate intake leading to health issues, that many people react badly or are allergic to them, they make you bloated, their vitamin content is far surpassed by fruits and vegetables, that our bodies have not adjusted to eating them since their introduction to our diets roughly 10,000 years ago and that generally our bodies react badly to the gluten, lectins and phytates that grains contain.

Grains: pasta, bread (includes pita pretzels etc), noodles, flour, wheat, cereal, rice, oats, corn. Many processed foods include grain derived ingredients. Not grains: potato, sweet potato, quinoa

Grains: pasta, bread (includes pita pretzels etc), noodles, flour, cereal, rice, oats, corn. Many processed foods include grain derived ingredients.
Not grains: potato, sweet potato, quinoa

Now I’m not saying all these nasty things that are being said are necessarily true and I’m not particularly interested in debating them for now. All I want to know is how I react to grains, and how dropping them from my diet will impact my mind and body. So the day after my no meat month, I started my no grain month.

The first interesting thing was people’s reaction when I mentioned I was cutting out grains. Many people would just look confused and ask “why?” Not wanting to get into any long-winded conversation or debate (unavoidable, sometimes) I would just say I was trying it out. Some people would just stand there looking puzzled, wondering why anyone would do such a thing. I didn’t get this when discussing meat, something we’ve eaten for far longer throughout our evolution, so it was interesting that grains elicited this response.

So meat was back in and grains were out – I was happy to get my meat back and the changes I felt were immediate and positive. By eliminating grains I was mostly forced to take the healthy choice. No more cereal, bagels or croissants for breakfast, the only thing on the menu in the local cafe that passed the no grain audit was salad. Even the sauces had grain-derived ingredients so my salads went sauce free. At first it tasted a bit bland, but I found that fruit and vegetables for breakfast filled me up nicely until afternoon.

Grains, on the other hand, have me feeling hungry shortly afterwards and sometimes even make me hungrier. I’ve been a bit peckish before, eaten a bagel, and been full on starving afterwards (yes, even wholewheat bagels for those who asked after my last article).

I believe the poor hunger control often caused by grain and processed food consumption is due to blood sugar levels rising quickly and the resulting insulin production causing a crash, resulting in food cravings and more consumption. Repeat this often enough for a long enough amount of time and the blood sugar level rollercoaster will put you on course for weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed bread, pasta et el, they’ve always left me feeling pretty bloated and heavy and certainly not primed for peak performance. By eliminating them I benefited from increased energy levels and felt lighter.

Now, I realise this comes across as flagrant grain-bashing but please understand that I don’t think grains are awful and terrible. My current view is that grains are fine, but it’s excessive consumption that causes problems. ‘Excessive consumption’ is relative to how active you are – a marathon runner or labourer can safely consume more than a sedentary office worker who rarely stands up.

Now I consume grains in moderation and I feel I’ve struck a nice balance in my diet now that suits me. However, some people eat cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a big bowl of pasta for dinner and numerous grainy, high-carb snacks in between and think this is a good, healthy diet and can’t understand why they’re gaining weight and feeling tired.

no-grainMy only rule during this month was no grains. I didn’t diet (other than fasting for 24 hours every 1-2 weeks) and I didn’t monitor or worry about carbohydrate consumption during the month, but I still lost weight, just over 2kg. I didn’t worry about deserts or other ‘naughty’ foods and ate freely, but I discovered that most unhealthy, indulgent food has some form of flour, bread or cereal in it, so that seemed to largely keep my healthy eating in check.

Most highly-processed foods were off the menu, which again contributed to my positive experience with this experiment. I found myself having to check ingredients lists closely and almost all packaged food had something like ‘rice vinegar’, ‘wheat extract’ or some other grain derivative. This checking process made me more aware of what I was consuming and was a valuable education. I don’t think we give enough consideration to what we put in our bodies, but this month I was forced to check to ensure I didn’t inadvertently consume grains. Occasionally there’d be no grains, but the list would contain so many chemicals I couldn’t pronounce that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. This is one of the biggest things I took from the month – being aware and mindful of what I was consuming.

Overall I felt great, had lots of energy and was losing weight, but I did crave grains at times. Towards the end of the month I started to enviously see people wolfing down sandwiches, pizza or pasta. Perhaps my body was craving the nutrients and energy, or perhaps I missed the taste and flavour of those foods. I introduced grains back into my diet after the month ended and now I eat them in moderation. By ‘moderation’, I mean a lot, lot less than the average person. If bread is served with soup and it looks tasty I’ll eat it. If it looks cheap, very white or full of preservatives, I won’t. If I’m eating out and I want grains, I’ll have them, but my intake has reduced dramatically. I’d estimate that my current grain consumption is about 30-40% of what it was pre-experiment, and I’m especially careful to avoid them earlier on in the day as I feel they set me up for a day of hunger. I’ve continued to see improvements in body composition and health without totally cutting them out and I can still eat the foods I enjoy.

Another way to put this is that I feel I’ve found the carbohydrate and grain consumption level that works for me, and I’m reaping the benefits of that.

My conclusion from this is that different people have different tolerance levels for grains and carbohydrates. Some react terribly, whereas some seem to be able to get away with consuming more. This idea of experimentation and accepting that people react to foods differently sounds so simple, but is so often forgotten with nutritional advice.

I have learned so much about myself and my body over these two months and would wholeheartedly recommend these kind of food experiments to anyone. Not necessarily no meat or no grains, but just play around with your diet, eliminate food groups for a while and see how you feel, try fasting or just keep a food diary and monitor weight, mood and energy level changes. You’ll learn so much about yourself you’ll never again pay attention to the drivel that’s often found in newspapers and magazines regarding nutrition, and that can only be a good thing.

Not wanting to halt my food journey, I had an interesting food experiment in store for part 3. Will fill you in soon…

The Big Food Experiment

What and when to eat?

Don’t let me tell you what you must eat and when you must eat it

I’ve been asked recently how I’m doing on my 2013 goals and ideas, which I so publicly revealed. The answer is some better than others. They’re all ongoing, so the end of the year is when I’ll fully assess, and if I haven’t achieved and maintained them I’ll get a big ‘FAIL’ stamp tattooed on my forehead.

One of the things I wanted to do was ‘try new things’, and I’ve approached this in one way by trying out some experiments with food. By food experiments I don’t mean genetically modifying tomatoes to be as big as footballs (although I would try that if I knew how), I mean experimenting with how different foods and eating patterns affect my mind and body.

We’re constantly bombarded with information on diet and nutrition. Magazines and online fitness ‘gurus’ tell you what you MUST do, and use powerful statements such as ‘eat this food to turn your body a fat-burning machine’, and ‘if you don’t eat breakfast your body goes into catabolic starvation mode and your metabolism grinds to a halt’.

When it’s written with such strength and conviction, who cares if it’s true?

Decisiveness sells and attracts people, I get that, but this is one area that requires a more diplomatic approach – experiment with different things, monitor closely how it affects you, keep an open mind and discover a personalized solution for you, which admittedly doesn’t sound quite as good as ‘eat this and watch the fat melt away’.

I guarantee, in 100 years there will still be people telling you that you MUST do this, you MUST do that, and the masses will be lapping it up and paying for it, both with their wallet and their poor results.

Discovering what works for you is possible for anyone with a little intelligence and the will to succeed. Unfortunately a lack of will is what stops most people…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

My first food experiment was a month without meat. I’ve eaten meat all my life and I’ve tried almost every meat imaginable. If it has a brain and moves, chances are I’ve eaten it. I believe meat consumption is largely healthy, but my big issue comes with the quality of meat. Organic grass-fed beef is very different from supermarket beef lasagne, which probably contains more unicorn than beef. So I rather hesitantly embarked on my no-meat journey and loudly proclaimed it on facebook to get some feedback and hold myself accountable.

I could write a lot about how I felt and reacted to no meat, but I want to summarize the main points to keep this article at a decent length.

I was told by some that a no-meat diet would leave me feeling clean, fresh and light. I didn’t find this at all. I actually felt quite heavy and bloated. A lot of my meat seemed to be replaced by grains – pasta, bread, rice etc. Interestingly, some of my vegetarian friends have confirmed that almost every meal they have is grain based.

If I saw this I had to turn around and run for my life

If I saw this I had to turn around and run for my life

For the first few weeks I was lacking in energy. This improved towards the end but I was a long way from feeling at my best. I stress, this could have been due to many other factors – sleep, stress levels etc, but I definitely didn’t feel ‘alive’, like some said I would.

It made me realise that I enjoy eating meat. It tastes good and I feel good from eating it.
I was really looking forward to eating meat again, but my first meat meal after the month was a bit of an anti-climax. It tasted good, but not spectacular like I’d envisaged. But overall I was happy to get it back into my diet.

It showed me I could go without meat fairly comfortably if need be. The longest I’d gone before this was probably a day or two at most.

I’d like to stress at this point that this was a long way from being a scientific experiment. I continued eating some fish and as mentioned previously, so many other factors could have played a part in how I felt during this month. I’m open to the idea that if I’d perhaps given it longer or tried some other no-meat diet solutions, these could have been more positive. Perhaps I’ll try that later. I have some friends who are vegetarian, eat loads of bread and pasta and look and feel great. I’m not doubting this works for them as I can see the results, but for now I don’t think it’s for me.

The biggest and most positive thing I took from this experience was how I view the quality of the meat I consume – how the animals kept and fed and how that affects the taste and nutrient profile of the meat.

So that’s a summary of what I discovered about myself. Nothing too profound, but I’m glad I did it and it’s already set me on the path to thinking more about what I consume.

And in case you’re wondering, I put on about half a kilo.

About half way through the no-meat month I was looking at a wholewheat bagel I was eating and thinking about how it was making me feel, when it came to me – the next month I would cut out all grains, which meant no bread, rice, noodles, wheat etc, or anything deriving from grains, such as rice vinegar, wheat extract (found in a lot of processed foods) and most alcohol including beer (oh dear!). I knew it would be harder as many food items are off the menu, but I was excited about trying this one.

In my next post I’ll let you know how I got on…

Also, please note that we offer nutritional guidance in Bangkok at BASE.